Has America Become Entirely Dysfunctional?
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Across the political spectrum, commentators are debating why President Barack Obama failed to achieve the lofty goals of his 2008 campaign when he promised "change we can believe in" and a "new tone" in Washington. A wretched jobs report two weeks ago - showing no net increase in jobs in August - and the acrimony around it underscore the point.
On the Right, the explanation is simple: socialist Obama relied on "big government" solutions, such as an early $787 billion stimulus package, when he should have slashed federal spending, eliminated regulations and trusted the "free market" to straighten things out. The answer is to elect someone like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who would also appeal for divine intervention.
On the Left, the argument is almost the polar opposite, faulting Obama for applying timid solutions to grave problems (like agreeing to water down his stimulus plan with tax cuts to get a couple of GOP votes). He also is disparaged for bending over backwards to Republicans in the unrealistic hope that they would reciprocate with some measure of bipartisanship.
These Left critics say Obama should have used his "bully pulpit" aggressively to fight for his positions, whether his larger stimulus plan or a "public option" in his health-care bill, and he should have held George W. Bush and his aides accountable for war-crimes, from torturing detainees in the "war on terror" to waging aggressive war against Iraq.
Facing this barrage of criticism from all sides, Obama's shrinking army of defenders points to the unfairness of it all. America's first black president inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and was burdened with a federal deficit of more than $1 trillion (while Bush started with a robust economy and a budget surplus).
Obama was stuck, too, with Bush's two unresolved wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These defenders also note that Obama faced immediate and unrelenting Republican opposition in Congress with an unprecedented use of filibusters requiring 60 Senate votes to accomplish almost anything, despite the nation's economic crisis. On vote after vote, Republicans stayed unified while conservative Democrats often peeled away.
The defenders says the refrain from many on the Left that Obama should have done more when he had a 60-vote Senate majority ignores the fact that Republicans contested Sen. Al Franken's victory in Minnesota for months and that two key senators, Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd, died and had to be replaced in special elections. The 60-vote majority was fleeting, they note.
While Obama's defenders certainly have a point - that the young President faced a near-impossible task and had very few good options - they shy away from another explanation for his failures, perhaps because it suggests the true enormity of the problem: the overall U.S. political system has become dysfunctional,
The dysfunction is not simply the Republicans and the Democrats, as some centrist pundits like to pontificate. It is the entirety of the system, including the pundits themselves, the national news media and the think-tank structure. It is the Right's splurging on what amounts to information warfare and the Left's skimping when it comes to building a counter-media infrastructure.
It is also a population that is too lazy (or too distracted) to wade through all the half-truths and disinformation to find something approximating the truth on a wide variety of topics. Many Americans either believe falsehoods or are profoundly confused by all the noise.
Another remarkable part of the American dysfunction is that at a time when - as billionaire Warren Buffett says - the rich are winning the class war, the nation's top "populist" movement is the Tea Party, which is fighting to give the rich more money and to grant their corporations more power.