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.
The Degraded Political Dialogue
But what exactly qualifies as news anymore, when his smart phone seems to be showing "breaking news" every minute? Todd doesn't always know, either. His remark about peeing into a hurricane are strong words from a man who is considered one of Washington's more influential journalists, so influential, in fact, that Obama greeted him personally as "Chuck" during his speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
In the NBC spots advertising his show, Todd says that he wants to ask the kinds of questions at the White House that ordinary citizens can't ask. But does he even have the time to come up with good questions? Or are campaign managers right when they say that it's much easier nowadays to feed their doctored news stories to overworked journalists, because no one has the time to check them anymore.
Todd, 40, grew up with printed newspapers and magazines, and with the Washington Post and thick presidential biographies on his night table. He was born at a time when newspaper articles could still bring down presidents. Today the same Washington Post that became famous with its stories about Watergate and the resignation of former President Richard Nixon is losing millions every year, fighting to stay afloat.
The television evening news programs, still a daily focal point for 53 million Americans in 1980, are also losing viewers in droves. On good days, 20 million viewers watch the evening news, a tiny number in a country as big as the United States. Things have become faster and more colorful, says Todd. Cable broadcaster MSNBC has 24 hours a day to fill with programming, even as it competes with the much faster Web. For his "Daily Rundown," Todd also has to find out what kind of soup is being served for lunch at the White House cafeteria. That's what exclusive news looks like these days.
The bloggers and tweeters have taken control of the media, as have new media outlets like Politico, a blog whose reporters have 15 minutes after a presidential speech to turn in their first analyses. They are groomed to focus on conflict because it attracts the most attention. Readers are quick to click away from stories that don't titillate, so that fleeting moments become the real story in Washington.
Gossip and Chatter
When Obama gives his speech on the state of the union, his advisors no longer wait for the editorials to gauge its effect. Instead, they systematically plow through tweets during the speech -- a total of 766,681 during the last State of the Union address. And when former Alaska Governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the great hope of dim-witted America, calls the president a socialist on her Facebook page, she attracts more attention than a team of reporters from the New York Times that has spent months researching stories about nuclear weapons, the banking crisis and war.
Americans gossip and chatter, but they no longer talk to one another. Liberals read blogs like the Huffington Post and watch MSNBC. Conservatives read the Drudge Report and watch Fox News. Switching back and forth only makes things more confusing, which is why many people are losing interest. Polls show that many Americans no longer want to discuss politics. This must be disconcerting for a TV reporter like Chuck Todd. "It is easy to say the media stinks," he says. "If loud voices on the left and right are constantly telling you these guys stink at what they do, then the public also says, 'Oh, yeah, they stink at what they do.'"
Everyone gets into the game of painting things in black and white. And because it's so difficult to come up with catchy campaign slogans for America's extremely diverse society, the attempts to reach people are getting increasingly crude on both sides. The Republicans aren't the only ones coming up with hard-hitting campaign rhetoric. So are the Democrats, especially Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager.
Cutter is 43, attractive and aggressive, and when she isn't talking into cameras and microphones, she sits in front of long rows of computers at the offices of the Obama-Biden re-election campaign in Chicago. When TV ads recently quoted Karl Rove, the Republican campaign guru, calling Obama a president of broken promises, Cutter was in her element.
Hand-to-Hand Political Combat
No one should believe that "BS," she told the media. Bullshit isn't a word that is quite kosher in the United States, and certainly isn't used openly in press conferences. But this doesn't stop the well-dressed and sophisticated Cutter, as she stares straight into the cameras.
The truth is that Cutter is Obama's attack dog, a hyper-aggressive promoter of Democrats, at home in Washington's trenches for almost two decades. Cutter worked for former President Bill Clinton in the White House when the Republicans tried to impeach him.
Her specialty is political hand-to-hand combat, dirty, vicious and fast, which Cutter treats like sports. "Politics really works like ping pong," she says. "It's always a back and forth." It's important, she says, that the Democrats don't fall behind. The sheer competitive nature of this election campaign is obvious, the two campaigns seem to focus entirely on scoring quick points, day in and day out. Compared to the American presidential campaign, European election campaigns feel like university panel discussions.
Vice President Joe Biden's current mantra is that anyone who wants to evaluate the Obama presidency needs to know only one sentence: "Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive." More or less everyone involved in the race is using the same tone, making the political contest sound like an ad for chocolate bars or toilet paper.
But what is the campaign really about? A review of Obama's domestic policy performance in the first years of his presidency yields a list of clear successes, which he now rattles off at every campaign event. They include his $787 million economic stimulus package, which prevented the economy from collapsing after the 2008 financial crisis, and the government bailouts of the American auto industry, which helped turn things around in Detroit. Obama claims credit for fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians, and he hopes to be remembered as the president who launched the biggest healthcare reform in the nation's history, which helped provide 32 million people with health insurance.
Each of these achievements is impressive in its own right, but the list of Obama's domestic successes pretty much stops there, and it doesn't coalesce into a sizeable, comprehensible agenda of "Change." He has also had some serious failures. Last summer, for example, Obama took his biggest beating yet in his bid to achieve national reconciliation when he failed to force the Republicans to compromise on a long-term budget, even though the government was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Zealots of All Stripes
Blaming political rivals for one's own mistakes comes across as weakness, even though it's true in this case: The Tea Party, that radical movement within the Republican Party that began squealing the minute Obama came into office, is behind the obstruction of political operations in America. But couldn't Obama and his team be expected to find his enemies' weaknesses and use them to weaken opposition?
The Tea Party opposes every Obama proposal without exception, including environmental policies, various economic stimulus programs, healthcare reform and fiscal policy. Its own ideas are hard to beat when it comes to sheer radicalism, ideas that, in Europe, would probably make the movement subject to investigation by domestic intelligence agencies. Tea Party activists, for example, want the United States to withdraw from the United Nations and put an end to all social programs. They call for the elimination of many government institutions, most notably the Federal Reserve and, of course, the Internal Revenue Service.
Zealots of all stripes have come together under the Tea Party umbrella: economic liberals, gun enthusiasts, social Darwinist and members of militia movements. The "Birthers," who introduced the debate over the president's identity, are also part of the Tea Party movement.
The Tea Party is a problem for Obama, not because it could come into power itself, but because it exerts so much influence over the Republican Party and, in the end, has become the loudspeaker for the conservative half of America's population. More alarmingly than ever, the Tea Party combines the glorification of the unsophisticated with megalomania, and conspiracy theories with poor education. Its supporters represent dark clichés of a vapid America, one in which there are plenty of people who would have no objection to many a modern book being burned. The novels of Jonathan Franzen, author of "Freedom" and "The Corrections," could certainly be part of that list.
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.
The Most Commercial Campaign Ever
The news stories consistently state that Obama is cautious, that he urges the military and intelligence services to exercise restraint, and that he rejects operations that don't have him 100 percent convinced. But what does this Obama, judge and hangman alike, have to do with the senator from Illinois whose words of hope once brought tears to the eyes of his admirers in front of the Victory Column in Berlin?
It's a shame, of course, but it's also true: Obama has become a different person. Within four years, a period of constant stress in which the burden of decisions, often life-and-death decisions, has weighed heavily on the president, he has become visibly older and grayer. Nevertheless, Barack Obama seems to feel relatively comfortable in his role. Would reporters be given access to such secret information if Obama's campaign staffers weren't convinced that the tough-guy image is good for their candidate?
It's all about selling, much more so in American politics than elsewhere, but the utter commercialism of this election campaign is unprecedented. There have always been rich benefactors and donors, but now they are allowed to join forces with super-PACs, and that can produce a fiery mix.
PAC stands for Political Action Committee, which sounds harmless enough, and yet PACs pose a threat to democracy in America. They exist because the conservative judges on the Supreme Court felt that there was no connection between large donations and the appearance of corruptibility, and that no one would lose faith in democracy. Whether that's true still isn't entirely clear.
At the beginning of a campaign based on new rules, the Supreme Court's "Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission" decision came into effect. It completely upends the political landscape. Now anyone with the means and desire can support the candidate or his choice with as much money as he wants, and he can even remain anonymous in the process. All the transparency that was once so carefully regulated is gone. Restrictions? There are none, except one that's purely theoretical: Today's donors are not permitted to coordinate their efforts directly with the candidates.
'Tsunami of Slime'
Practically speaking, however, there has never been such a direct connection between big money and big politics. Although wealthy donors may be barred from "direct coordination" with the candidates, no one, of course, had prevent them from sharing meals with candidates, traveling with them or standing next to them on a stage. This has created a de facto situation in which many of the superrich can now anonymously invest in attack ads that disparage Obama and benefit their preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, who promised tax cuts to the rich long ago.
In the words of New York Magazine, the super-PACs will unleash a "tsunami of slime" in the coming months. They already spent more than $100 million in the Republican primaries, with some of the money coming from a group of very wealthy individuals that the Washington Post has dubbed "kingmakers." Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, also a big spender, expresses his view of the new laws in a nutshell: "I'm against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections. But as long as it's doable I'm going to do it."
In the upcoming duel between Obama, 50, and Romney, 65, super-PACs are expected to spend $200 million to support Romney. The Democrats are fighting back. Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, is traveling around the country to collect large donations for the Priorities USA Action PAC, which will also use every trick in the advertising book to disparage Romney.
As a result, campaigns will become even more toxic than they have already become since the Tea Party came into existence. There will be no honest questions, discussions and debates about Obama's successes and failures, his goals or his projects. Calling for questions, discussions and debates already seems obsolete, because the American national political contest has been turned into an all-or-nothing game.
Candidates who lose elections try to undermine their outcome. It isn't too much of an overstatement to say that the Republicans are stubbornly ignoring the will of the people, expressed in the form of Obama's election to the presidency. It's as if they had treated his presidency as unworthy of discussion from the very beginning, an accident of American history.
Democrat in the Diaspora
The Republicans are not at home in the cities, the metropolises along the coasts, where the leftist Occupy movement has also vented its displeasure over Obama's performance. Instead, they derive their support from America's forests and mountains and plains, its rural areas. It's worth paying a visit to such places to examine the limits of Obama's chances of succeeding in the vast stretch of country between the coasts -- to a place like Washington, Oklahoma, for example, where retiree Hershel Franklin is already seen as a misfit because he drives around with an "Obama '08" bumper sticker on his car.
Franklin is a Democrat in the diaspora. In Oklahoma, a state wedged between Texas and Kansas, that's enough to be considered an outsider. The town of Washington is a place where people say business transactions are still sealed with a handshake, and a man's word is worth more than a contract. In this Washington, with its 520 residents, where everyone knows everyone else, people don't lock their doors and they leave their car keys in the ignition when they go into the post office. It's a place that attracts people who want to get away from the cities, and from their licentiousness and liberal lack of morals.
Franklin came to Washington because of his children. He is 70, white-haired, slightly overweight and a football fan. He worked as a criminal lawyer for 30 years. His wife is the marketing director at a local bank, and their two children, 14 and 16, a boy and a girl, are both adopted.
Washington, Oklahoma reminds him of his childhood and of the idyllic image of the American small town, says Franklin. It's the America of high-school proms and the America where entire small towns turn out to watch the local high-school football game on a Friday night. In the Domino Building, the retirees still smoke as if there were no smoking bans, and they make crude jokes about Obama, saying that they would drive him out of town if he ever had the audacity to show up there.
Washington, Oklahoma, is fighting against change. Change is suspect, almost a crime against the past. Oklahoma is deeply in red-state territory. In the last presidential election, all 77 counties voted for the Republican candidate John McCain, giving Oklahoma the distinction of being the only state in which McCain won every county. "Ironically," says Hershel Franklin, "the people here really ought to be voting for the Democrats."
Touch of the Irrational
In rural towns like Washington, the people are even more dependent on the government and on government assistance than elsewhere. There is little infrastructure and a lot of poverty. Until recently, Franklin lived on a farm, where he received his electricity through the Rural Electric Cooperative, which installs power lines to remote areas. Today, like almost all retirees in Washington, he benefits from Medicare, the government healthcare program for retirees. These are both programs that were introduced by Democrats, because Democrats, unlike Republicans, believe in the government's capacity to benefit citizens. But it hasn't done them any good in Oklahoma.
The Republicans, says Franklin, have managed to convince people that completely different issues are more important: the right to bear arms, a ban on all forms of abortion and the rejection of gay marriage. The Republicans, says Franklin, have claimed that the Democrats want to ban prayer in schools and desecrate classrooms. "God. Guns. Gays," says Franklin. "They behaved as if Jesus himself was a Republican! And eventually the people here actually believed this nonsense."
This touch of the irrational always pervades the political debate in America, partly as a result of an unwillingness to confront the excessive complexity of the tasks at hand. The biggest project of Obama's term in office, healthcare reform, has been talked to pieces to such an extent by now that even the experts are clueless about its details. There are sharply contradictory calculations that predict either financial salvation or ruin for the United States as a result of the program, known derisively as "Obamacare." Even Obama himself hasn't managed to come up with clear enough brushstrokes to paint a convincing picture of his reforms.
There is a chance that the Supreme Court will overturn the entire body of laws at the end of June, a court whose judges have openly said during hearings that no one can expect a court to actually read a bill consisting of thousands of pages. The same applies to the similarly voluminous bills on the regulation of the banking system and insurance companies and, on the other side of the aisle, to the Republicans' budget proposals. Confusion is being produced where clarity ought to prevail. And when legislation becomes so complex as to confuse even lawmakers and the courts, the lobbyists, the true regents in Washington, come into play.
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.