The President of Disappointments How Obama Has Failed to Deliver


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Part 5: The Vanishing Center

If Obama's results are not as glowing as his voters had anticipated, it's partly the fault of people like Grover Norquist. Back in 1986, when he was a young anti-tax activist, Norquist came up with a pledge that would eventually become a powerful weapon on the political battlefield.

Norquist is a short, bearded man who likes to juggle in his office. His pledge reads: "The signer pledges to: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."

It sounds like just another sentence from the complicated world of politics, but it has become a creed among Republicans. Of the 47 Republican senators, 41 have signed Norquist's "anti-tax pledge," as have 238 of 242 Republicans in the House of Representatives. Of course, presidential candidate Romney has also signed the pledge.

Norquist, 55, is proud of his achievement, and he views his program as a sort of Republican quality control -- and as a recipe for guaranteed success. When he wrote it in 1986, he proclaimed his dogma: Anyone who did not comply with the anti-tax pledge would be punished by the voters.

Norquist believes that his prediction was borne out six years later. George H. W. Bush signed the pledge, Norquist says. "Then in the campaign, he said, 'Read my lips. No new taxes,' and so he won. Then two years later, the smartest people in the world went to him and said it's okay to raise taxes, it's okay, no one will mind. And he raised taxes and lost the next election."

'Greedy Monster of the State'

Norquist's system is mafia-esque. The lobbyist has candidates running for office sign the pledge, and in return he supports their campaigns. Later, if they are elected, he reminds them of their promise.

Every Wednesday morning, Norquist hosts a conference on the sixth floor of his office building near the White House. He claims that some 200 activists regularly attend the meetings, and that they constitute the spearhead of about 150,000 online sympathizers. Representatives of sponsors like Pfizer and Microsoft, which pay Norquist a lot of money for his anti-tax crusade, which has saved them a lot of money, also attend the Wednesday sessions.

Norquist, sitting at the head of the table like a general, speaks in Churchill quotes -- demanding blood, sweat and tears in the fight against the "greedy monster of the state, which must be tamed." Can't the state achieve anything that the market isn't capable of doing? It's the wrong question for Norquist, who says: "When you look at the Pyramids, that's really cool. Versailles is really cool, but the peasants might have wanted some of that money they spent on Versailles."

His Wednesday group is called "Leave Us Alone," a quasi-religious service for those who believe in the anti-state. The notion that America could use more tax revenues to repair its broken roads, ports and schools is considered blasphemy here. And so is the question of whether a single family like the Waltons, the co-owners of the Walmart discount chain of superstores, should be allowed to own as much as the poorest 30 percent of all Americans.

The Democrats count Norquist as one of the "tax Taliban," arguing that Norquist has only one solution for those who don't agree with him: "Off with their heads." Norquist chuckles. But haven't the Taliban won? And is there anything he should be ashamed of? In Washington, it's easy to conclude that it's impossible to engage in politics against someone like Norquist. But what does this say about America's democratic culture? And what does it say about the culture of Washington today?

Bravado and Absurdities

Few people are more familiar with this culture than journalist Dana Milbank. He doesn't just write about the Washington establishment; he is the Washington establishment. In his student days, Milbank was a member of Skull & Bones, the legendary secret society at Yale University, whose members include former President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. Milbank attends every important off-the-record meeting in the capital, and in his column he dissects with relish the bravado and absurdities of Washington politics.

Milbank, 44, meets with us at the Willard Hotel, an old establishment in which, as legend has it, the term lobbyist was invented. Petitioners allegedly waited in the hotel's lobby for President Ulysses Grant. Chronicler Milbank also muses about the past: "Parties in America used to be heterogeneous. Each party would have conservatives and liberals and moderates. Now, there's no longer a center in American politics."

As a result, says Milbank, Washington has become the capital of lonely hearts. In the past, members of Congress brought their families to the capital, and their children played together. Today the new Tea Party lawmakers sleep on the couch in their offices to prove that they haven't become a part of the establishment. "Now what happens is they come in Tuesday afternoon and they leave Thursday night," says Milbank.

The 112th US Congress has been the most unproductive Congress since the end of World War II. When lawmakers were supposed to come to an agreement during a few dramatic weeks last summer over reducing the country's gigantic debt burden, the task was initially assigned to a bipartisan "Gang of Six." It failed. Then a "Gang of Twelve," made up of the most level-headed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, tried its hand. There was still no agreement.

Ironically, compromise is what the United States of America urgently needs. The country's infrastructure is crumbling. Its administration, especially the government in Washington, is urgently in need of renewal. Public schools and large segments of the education system are in disastrous shape, as are many cultural institutions.

A Poor Country

The fiscal and social systems are still designed for a superior economy that derives its prosperity from constant growth in consumption. But the old days, in which everything worked out somehow, thanks to the sheer energy of a great country, are drawing to a close. America has no plan for its future as a nation that is still powerful, but no longer superior.

Many problems are simply ignored. Los Angeles, for example, is the biggest Thai city outside Thailand and the world's third-largest Spanish-speaking city. Three-fourths of all children in the giant Los Angeles school district speak Spanish. The obvious question -- Is this or is this not a problem? -- isn't asked.

But the spirit of multiculturalism that prevails in the cities on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts is not shared by all. In the forests, deserts and mountains, and in the states along the southern borders, a new sense of anxiety -- and a new racism -- is taking shape in the form of new, crude immigration laws. Local ethnic conflicts are heating up in southern California, Texas, Arizona, Alabama and Florida that are hardly ever mentioned in national debates. But they won't go away on their own.

Another problem is the fact that the United States is a poor country, at least in much larger parts of it than the world suspects, and that its unsophisticated backwaters are populated by people who lives in huts and run-down mobile homes, people who often lack the bare necessities and, even more often, lack so much as an elementary education. There are an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country, about half of them Mexicans. Almost one in four teenagers is unemployed. There is no question that American needs a new plan.

Does it need a new president? The question is certainly justified. What has Obama done to address his large country's many serious problems? Not enough. Could he have done more, not just at home but in the rest of the world? Probably. Have the Republicans starved him? Undoubtedly. But would their candidate Mitt Romney, the mysterious, filthy rich Mormon, be the better president? Most certainly not.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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mae 06/15/2012
1. s
Zitat von sysopBarack Obama entered the White House as a savior. But he hasn't delivered. The ideological chasms in the US are as deep as they have ever been, with Republicans blocking the president at every turn. Who is responsible for his failure?,1518,838648,00.html
By saying the US has 11 million immigrants, the author of this article has inadvertedly exposed Germany's privitive backward concept of nationality based on blood. If the author of this article had not been so lazy and done some proper research, than he would have found out that the USA like other nations of immigrants (Australia, Canada, New Zealand) has immigration programs that allow people from all over the world to LEGALLY immigrate into the country. Each year the USA allows 1 million legal immigration. What he meant was there are 11 million ILLEGAL immigrants. Oh right we know the usual double standards Der Spiegel uses when reporting on this subject. Only when the EU sends border guards and erects barbed wire to keep out immigrants, than the Der Spiegel uses the correct word "illegal immigrants." But for some strange reasons Der Spiegel never refers to the millions of illegals who cross into the USA from Mexican as illegal immigrants. How dumb do you think people are?
46frosty 06/15/2012
2. Obama not what we thought in America.
I agree with the author, America has become a silly and easily controllable country of fools. Our national media has been bought by our rightwing and Republican Conservatives are running the nation into the ground. I volunteered, donated and voted for Obama. I will not vote, work or donate for him in 2010. Obama has proved to be yet another fake Democrat that is actually a Republican. The works of our corrupt Supreme Court and it's stealing of election 2000 is reaping it's rewards ---for the enemies of America!
Prof_Socrates 06/15/2012
3. Academic Comments 1
Gen. Comment: The set of 5 linked articles is really difficult/to much information to read or/& process/ analyze for an average person. Both questions show that both respected authors have not completed their homework. 1Q. as the article is explaining with great number of supporting facts, Obama cannot deliver because the unusually aggressive behavior of the Republicans. 2Q. The emigration question in USA is really marginal/ not really addressed in this publication. Hence, there is no sense to criticize in the air. Emigration in USA/ GE/ Europe and so on is a big/ very sensitive/ complicated topic, worth separate publications and discussion.
mneven 06/16/2012
Zitat von sysopBarack Obama entered the White House as a savior. But he hasn't delivered. The ideological chasms in the US are as deep as they have ever been, with Republicans blocking the president at every turn. Who is responsible for his failure?,1518,838648,00.html
After the "wrecker Bush" we had the "talker" Obama now for more than three years in the White House and one can't help to wonder who or what talent comes next. On the other hand it is not just the president who is responsible. US partisan politics are worse than awful and US senators and congress men seem to relish and block each other while the country "goes down in a hand basket". If there is no change in attitude and a more just system for taxation the USA will go to hell. 06/17/2012
5. Balance
It would have been useful to have some degree of balance in the article, as all but one section centered on an interview with the Democratic Party affiliate. But the true intent and design was summed up in the last paragraph with the analysis of Mitt Romney. Are there problems? Yes, of course. But while you point to the "success" of the current administrations saving of the economy with massive spending, you fail to look at the long term consequences- the repayment of that debt. That is the fundamental difference between the two parties. Abortion, gun control, etc are all hot button emotion driven issues, which are used by both parties. What the vast majority want is a stable economy that offers employment. Success is left to the individual. I admired the German approach to the financial crisis. The austerity measures are what helped Germany rebound more quickly than the US. That is what we wanted, which was reflected in the 2010 election of fiscal conservative representatives to Congress.
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