The United States of America, where yet another mammoth presidential campaign is taking shape, makes up less than 5 percent of the world's population. Yet it consumes about 25 percent of the world's oil. It has close to $16 trillion (12.8 trillion) in debt, its expenditures will exceed its revenues by $1.3 trillion in this fiscal year alone, and the war in Afghanistan is costing it $2 billion. Each week. Many in this country are demanding peace in Syria, even as Washington quietly fights a dirty drone war in Pakistan. Some 169 prisoners are still stewing in Guantanamo. In Washington, D.C., the divide between the two political camps is so deep that it resembles an abyss. Is the current president of the United States really named Barack Obama? Is the era of George W. Bush really over?
Obama's first term in office will end in just a few months time. The giant, many-faceted country, 27 times the size of Germany, needs a new plan -- a new project for the staggering global superpower. A president will be elected in November for 314 million citizens. A new president? Perhaps. It is conceivable that the first black president, Barack Obama, hailed as a savior when he came into office, will be replaced by the pale Mormon Mitt Romney, a Republican with somewhat dubious conservative credentials.
The office both men are vying for is the most difficult in the world. The US president's agenda is constantly jam packed with the weightiest and the most trivial of matters alike, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Sometimes major national projects and monumental global tasks are relegated to the periphery of that agenda, because domestic sports scandals or sexual improprieties capture the headlines, because lunatic pastors decide to burn Korans, or because new statistics are released showing that three-fourths of all Americans are overweight, more than 46 million live in poverty and gunshots kill more than 30,000 people a year, suicides included.
The fact that Kim Kardashian's marriage lasted only 72 days can have a longer-lasting impact on the news in America than any environmental policy initiative. High gasoline prices (in the US "high" means that a liter of gasoline costs the equivalent of 0.77, or less than half the price of gasoline in Germany) are so important to so many people that they could decide the election. The fact that 52 percent of Republicans in Mississippi believe that Obama is a Muslim, or that 46 percent of Americans believe that man was created precisely as is written in the Bible can make political debates extraordinarily tedious.
Impossible? Not in America
Those who believe the above factoids have little to do with each other lack an understanding of the true situation inside the White House. Last year, for example, as Obama was sitting through what he called "the longest 40 minutes of my life," during the Special Forces operation against Osama bin Laden, he was concurrently embroiled in a debate, instigated by his political enemies, over whether his birth certificate is genuine. Impossible? Not in America.
Obama and his staff are constantly making decisions about what happens to be important at any given moment, based on daily events, click rates and noise levels. They stand in the middle of tornado made up of thousands of tiny news items, Internet discoveries and artificial scandals that a tireless, highly professional media industry is constantly producing -- in alliance with the world's busiest web community.
The amount of information that the White House deals with day after day and hour after hour is mind-boggling. It's an impossible place to work, and it's said that anyone who hopes to succeed there has to be made of the right stuff. Does this apply to Obama? Is he made for the office? Or is it one size too big, even for him?
To fairly judge his presidency, one has to go through the list of his kept and broken promises. Based on that criterion, Obama's performance falls within the "above-average" category when compared to the 11 US presidents since World War II. It is a modest success, the kind that many politicians would welcome. But it cannot seriously be enough for Obama.
As irrational and naïve as it always was to hail him as a savior, and as unfair as it is to compare his actions with his charisma, he portrayed himself as the shining knight of change. The word appeared prominently in his campaign and his slogan "Yes we can!" circled the globe. But now the prevailing feeling in America, even among the president's supporters, is that Obama has failed to deliver in many respects.
More Divided than Ever Before
The project of national reconciliation, which he famously invoked in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention by saying "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," has been a failure.
In reality, these United States are more divided than ever before. The culture war has been around for a long time, perhaps even shaping the country since the battles of the Civil War raged 150 years ago. But it has intensified instead of softened over time, and it has even been turned up a notch during Obama's term.
Almost everyone SPIEGEL correspondents spoke with throughout the country to discuss Obama's achievements and to paint a portrait of the current state of the United States put it this way: America's internal divisions have reached a new, worrisome stage. Proposed legislation that would normally be uncontroversial has been blocked for years, while senior positions in the judiciary and in government agencies have remained unfilled. Necessary supplementary budgets are only being approved at the last minute, and only because not approving them could result in a national bankruptcy.
In this climate, no president stands a chance of shaping the world according to his platform. In 2011, Obama is dealing with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives that refuses to budge even a single millimeter. The civil, democratic concept of compromise has been ruined, the concept has become a taboo for Republicans. The Republicans have become so stubborn that they are even blocking bills identical to legislation they proposed in the past.
As a result Washington, already long disparaged as an aloof, out-of-touch capital, has become an object of hate for many citizens, and the epitome of mediocrity and incompetence. The sharp-tongued comedians and commentators on US television blame blatant racism, conjuring up a Republican front against the black man in the White House. It's a malicious accusation, but there are some indications that it might be true.
Powers that Europe Could Only Dream Of
Rational arguments are no longer sufficient to explain why the business of politics has atrophied to such a degree in the US in recent years. It certainly doesn't speak in Obama's favor that he has proven incapable of reviving political discourse. On the other hand, sometimes it seems as if even the president of the United States, a man equipped with the kinds of far-reaching powers that European leaders can only dream of, is merely a small cog in the broken mechanism of power.
"It's like peeing into a hurricane," says Chuck Todd. Sometimes, he adds, "you feel like you're not having any impact." Todd, the chief White House correspondent for NBC News, is an important man in Washington. His alarm rings at 5 a.m., and if you meet him at 10 a.m., you will find a bearded man in his windowless office, sprawled exhausted in his chair with his smart phone flashing non-stop on the desk in front of him.
Todd is constantly receiving emails in his overflowing mailbox, including the Politico blog's Playbook, a chaotic collection of the most important events, facts and birthdays in the US capital.
Todd has to study the Drudge Report, a global overview of more or less relevant stories, and he has to see what the Huffington Post is doing and what the important bloggers are writing. He has to check in with Facebook and type into his Twitter feed. "If I were stranded on a desert island, the only thing I would want is my access to email and the Twitter feeds." Then, he continues, "I (would) know exactly what's going on in the world on political news, national news."
His hectic life is reflected in the dark circles that appear under his eyes, visible even in the pale light of his office. At 10 a.m., his shift as the host of "The Daily Rundown," a 60-minute summary of the latest political gossip on MSNBC, NBC's cable subsidiary, has just ended. In actuality, he is supposed to be at the White House by now, where he is scheduled to report on the big news of the day, and on what Obama is up to.