The President of Disappointments How Obama Has Failed to Deliver
Part 3: The Republican Strategy for Victory
Franzen has never made a secret of his opposition to the Republicans. He is not a radical, and certainly not an agitator, and he says that he has even had the "strange" experience of getting to know many nice people who are Republicans.
Franzen is sitting at the dining table in his New York apartment on the Upper East Side, near Madonna's townhouse. "My theory that nice people are evenly distributed throughout the population," says Franzen. Still, he adds, "I would say we've never been, certainly in my lifetime, more polarized than now."
He observed the political machine at close range in the summer of 2003, just after the Iraq War had begun. The New Yorker had hired him to report from Washington, and he was given access to senior Republican leaders, including then Vice President Dick Cheney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Franzen's encounters with Cheney, Gingrich and others revealed many reasons for the deep divide between liberals and conservatives. Although everyone at the time claimed that the divisions between the parties had been almost as deep in the 1990s, Franzen, through the eyes of a writer, sensed that things had in fact worsened significantly.
Legislators told him that they and their political rivals used to take the same flights home to their districts, spend time together and talk about their families. This collegial atmosphere, says Franzen, had disappeared. Senators who used to have lunch together are now wary of each other and are unlikely to spend to time together voluntarily.
Franzen believes that this development is intentional on the Republicans' part. "The Republicans had to face facts and realize that the policies they advocated had nowhere near a majority of support in the country. One way to keep winning was to try to reduce the number of people who vote," he says. "You can to that with these voter identification laws. You can also do it by making politics so toxic and so repulsive, so polarized, that ordinary people just don't participate."
The Party of the Rich
Franzen really believes this is true, even in the face of a visitor's skepticism. The Republicans' obstructionism on the budget, he says, was nothing but a power play, and their goal in blocking anything Obama proposes is merely to promote political apathy and then to benefit from it. There is no other explanation but malice, says Franzen, for the fact that the Congress is currently so completely unable to function. "It was very calculated. There was thoroughgoing party discipline."
The Republicans are still the party of the rich and of big business, says Franzen. Until 20 years ago, there was still enough to go around in the country that at least two thirds of Americans could live happy and satisfied lives. Today, Franzen points out, it's only enough for a third of the population. Besides, he adds, people are no longer convinced that their children will be better off than they are.
"When you look at the opinion polls, two-thirds of Americans want taxes raised on the wealthiest 1 percent. They think they are not paying enough taxes?" What do you do then, Franzen asks rhetorically "You try to hobble the president from the opposite party, and you try to inflame people with ridiculous issues like contraception."
In fact, hot-button issues of the kind Franzen cites are constantly turning up in the Republican campaign -- issues like abortion, contraception, religion and guns. "All of these things, they shouldn't matter," says Franzen, "but you have a deliberate strategy to keep forcing the issue." As a result, politics becomes a black art, with the objective of suppressing the truly important issues and shining on the issues that are in fact unimportant. "The media are themselves complicit, televised media in particular, because what gets people watching? Controversy gets people watching. If people are angry, they will turn on the TV in order to get more angry."
In Franzen's last novel, "Freedom," the protagonist Walter speculates on where all the hate in America comes from, and he points his finger at the Republicans. But where does their hate come from?
A Sense of National Vulnerability
Franzen takes a sip of water as the sun sets outside and says: "Some of it, undoubtedly, does have to do with the agony of a shrinking super power, a sense of frustration watching all the jobs go overseas to the Far East. Having sworn 'no more Vietnam,' as we went and got in two more Vietnams. You know, there is nothing like failing at wars to make a country feel bad about itself and feel angry."
The wars, the global economic crisis and the rise of China, India and South America have undoubtedly shaken America's self-image. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing stress of the "war on terror" have fed into a sense of national vulnerability and have turned the United States into a land of limited possibilities. And any look at Obama's presidency must, in all fairness, consider that he came into office at a very disadvantageous time.
By now, foreign and security policy has become Obama's best argument for re-election. He ended the war in Iraq, which he inherited, and he is preparing to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. This is in keeping with the Nobel Peace Prize which the Stockholm committee awarded him at the beginning of his presidency, and which only proved to be an additional burden for Obama. But the cold pragmatism that would shape his policies was already evident in his December 2009 acceptance speech. "Make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world," Obama said, and from today's perspective it is clear that this realization helps him to justify his own military actions, whether or not they are admissible under international law.
At least 250 of the known 300 drone attacks on Pakistani territory fall within Obama's term in office. They have killed an estimated 1,800 al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, as well as many civilians. Obama has severely decimated the ranks of the al-Qaida network through the large-scale use of drones. According to US reports, a new remote-controlled bomb killed al-Qaida's second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, only last week.
Contradictory List of Accomplishments
The CIA is waging a dirty, legally questionable secret war, one that lacks all transparency and ignores the dictates of law and order, but what it doesn't do is strengthen Obama's idea of America as the global protector of freedom and democracy. And the drone war certainly doesn't coincide with Obama's visions at the beginning of his term, including his desire to bring reconciliation to the world and to promote peace, especially between the United States and the world of Islamic culture.
After the leaden Bush years, in which US foreign policy consisted primarily of rhetoric about "rogue states," Obama gave his historic reconciliation speech in Cairo, and shortly after taking office he also sent a message of peace to the Iranian people. At the same time, however, the American intelligence services continued a top-secret high-tech war against Tehran's nuclear program under the code name "Olympic Games." What exactly is Olympic Games? Is it still pragmatism, or has it crossed the line into cynicism?
The list of Obama's actions continues in the same contradictory vein. Obama prevented the resumption of torture as an interrogation method, which had been used by the Bush administration. But he has yet to close the detainee camp in Guantanamo, a promise for which he had garnered worldwide applause. In the case of Libya, Obama supported the overthrow of the regime, but he doesn't seem to have come up with many ideas to stop the current massacres in Syria. Which values apply? Which principles are fixed and not fluid?
In terms of foreign policy, Obama's name will always be associated with the death of Osama bin Laden, which ultimately came down to orders for which he alone was responsible. A failed operation could have cost him his job, but instead he benefits from the image of the decisive leader who does what it takes to guarantee America's security. Obama is courageous and he takes a lot of risks, but how can he possibly feel when liberal newspapers now paint him as being more militaristic in the "war on terror" than former President George W. Bush ever was?
The public is learning of details that could send chills down its collective spine. The New York Times recently described the procedure under which the president approves drone attacks, in which his staff presents him with the names and photos of suspects who could be terrorists and are to be eliminated, including teenagers. And when Obama does approve a strike, it isn't long before the killer drones take off in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Somalia and in Yemen.