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Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010


Checkmates and imbalances are derailing Obama's bid for change

When historians look back on the Obama administration, they may deem the senatorial election in Massachusetts on Jan. 19, 2010, to have been the pivotal event determining its destiny.

That day, conservative Republican Scott Brown handsomely defeated liberal Democrat Martha Coakley to become the state's first republican senator in almost 40 years — and that despite the president's personal intervention in Coakley's campaign. This event will, I believe, impact not only this year's midterm congressional elections but also the 2012 presidential election.

Unlike in the United States, it is almost routine in Britain for voters in such a by-election to deliver a warning to the party in power with a slap on the wrist. But this special election in Massachusetts, to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy on Aug. 25, 2009, delivered the administration of President Barack Obama not so much a slap on the wrist as a swift kick you-know-where.

Massachusetts was one of the first places to abolish slavery (in 1783) and to racially integrate its militia. It was home to thinkers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and has been the Kennedys' long-time constituency. And, in the Boston Globe, it has one of the nation's few truly liberal newspapers.

In the special election just held, the state's voters handed victory to a man who has been a state senator for less than six years and who has openly supported "waterboarding" and military tribunal trials for those suspected of "terrorism." In as much as that poll may be indicative of the national mood, it would appear the U.S. electorate is contemplating a sharp turn to the right in the months and years ahead.

What's going on over there? People who fought to elect Obama are asking themselves, "Where is the change we thought we could believe in?"

Are we, in fact, witnessing the beginning of the end of the Obama era?

To answer these questions we must take a hard look at the very system that is causing the stultifying inertia now stymying Obama at every turn (except military ones).

Each democracy has its built-in means to prevent a dictator from abusing power, and the Founding Fathers of the republic chose a system of government going back to Greco-Roman times and refined by Montesquieu in France during the 18th-century Enlightenment. It was a system based on the separation of powers into three branches — the executive, the legislative and the judicial — and on checks and balances to restrain central government.

But since the nation was to be formed by a coming together of 13 very disparate colonies, yet more checks and balances were incorporated to protect states' rights against the center, rural interests against urban ones, and the privileges of the white Christian majority against the aspirations of racial or religious minorities.

Hence the crux of the governance problem facing the U.S. today: too many brakes for too few wheels.

The government is a machine that looks and talks sleek yet can move forward only at a snail's pace — except when executing some military action, on any scale, against real or perceived avatars.

Where else in the world do candidates run for national office on a platform denouncing their nation's capital? It is a common practice of all U.S. candidates for national office to pillory "the politicians in Washington" and suggest they intend to take power out of their tight fists and put it into the open hands of "the people." Until, that is, they win and become Washington politicians themselves . . .

It is no coincidence that the two U.S. presidents widely rated the greatest in the nation's history, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were both in office at times of dire national crisis — the 1861-65 American Civil War and the Great Depression of the 1930s, respectively. Both those presidents significantly widened the power of that office — and both were castigated and vilified in their time as dictators. Yet had they not stood up with conviction to the reactionaries of their time, both the Civil War and the Great Depression might have been prolonged — and indeed it was FDR's brazen and brave attacks on corporate America that made him a hero of his people (and the only president ever elected more than twice).

During his term in office from 1981-89, President Ronald Reagan initiated the dismantling of the regulations that FDR imposed on big business. Subsequent presidents, most notably George W. Bush (2001-09), took this process several steps further. The tightest checks and most numbing balances are now those on the federal government, not "free" enterprise.

Consequently, even with a stunning mandate such as that given Obama in 2008, the U.S. president is, to all intents and purposes, relatively powerless to alter the status quo.

The president's power resides in his role as a symbol of the nation. Ironically, the Founding Fathers, who had ridiculed King George III of England as a foppish tyrant, established an institution — the presidency — that has led to the creation of an uncrowned U.S. monarch. The aura that surrounds the president (and his wife), who now symbolize everything that is celebratory and regal, renders him more a monarchial head of state than an administrator of the nation's welfare.

Added to this are the all-powerful interest groups of the military-corporate complex, tied in our era to a vast range of services from banking and insurance to cyberpolitics and strategic consulting. This nexus has cleverly wrapped its message in the nation's flag and ensconced its greed in faux patriotism. And its raucous rhetoric has all but silenced or co-opted the mainstream media.

This has given new meaning to the term checks and balances. The president is now lumbered not only by the separation of powers imposed on his office by the Constitution, but also by the egregious, self-serving and ultimately anti-patriotic checks on his plans manipulated by enormous corporate and militaristic elements and the media under their sway.

America is close to being ungovernable as a nation, if by governable we mean the ability to effect meaningful, democratic and necessary change. It is a country in the grips of near-paranoia regarding its hyped-up dread of "terrorism." In this, the U.S. resembles the Soviet Union that I saw on two trips there in the mid-1960s. By magnifying the threat from the outside, Moscow was able to limit the personal freedom of Soviet citizens in the name of protecting them.

This is today's America to a T. Its citizens are now living in a nation derailed by Reagan and wrecked by Bush.

The majority of Americans thought Obama would put their country on track. But the wreck lies motionless on its side. Now that change appears hopelessly stalled, will the electorate, taking a signal from Massachusetts, choose a leader like Sarah Palin to "get the country moving again"?

If that happens, there won't be much of a country worth salvaging.

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