Ten Years FT Deutschland. Part 10 (a): Obama’s America

Apart from the crazy campaign year of 2008 and my occasional exotic adventures in other parts of the country, I spent most of my time in Washington, DC. From my leisurely neighborhood in the city’s newly gentrified North East, I can run or bike to the Capitol where most of the political drama of the last four years unfolded.

The Capitol is all set for the next inauguration

The Capitol is all set for the next inauguration

When I went for a jog this past Sunday, army regiments practiced for next week’s parade on Pennslyvania Avenue and a choir sang on the steps in front of the Capitol where the stage for Obama’s second inauguration on January 21st was already set up.

Congress has not been a happy place in the Obama years. From the beginning, the opposition – edged on by the new Tea Party movement – fought tooth and nail over every part of his agenda.

In his first two years, Obama spent enormous political capital on his plan to give millions of uninsured Americans access to health care. No other issue came to symbolize the ideological divide in Washington as much as the health care bill which the opposition saw as an unjustified government intrusion into the private sector.

The Supreme Court during the health care hearings

The Supreme Court during the health care hearings

In March 2010, the bill passed after a year of vitriolic debate. I wrote a big page about the dramatic showdown on the Hill and a commentary about the high political costs of this victory. Republicans continued their fight against “Obamacare” and took it all the way to the Supreme Court. In March 2012, I sat in the hearings in which the judges discussed this highly politicized case. In June, they found the law to be constitutional in a 5 to 4 vote.

Passage of another big project, the reform of the financial markets, had been easier after Wall Street’s gambles with subprime mortgages had plunged the country into its biggest crisis since the Great Depression. My colleague Kim Bode and I had the chance to interview Congressman Barney Frank, one of the architects of the Dodd-Frank bill, before the second anniversary of its passage. Progress on its implementation was slow, stalled by its opponents.

Congress was not happy, and neither was America. In 2008, Obama had promised to unite the country, but the parties moved further apart than ever before. Democrats and Republicans lost the ability to talk to each other – sometimes even within families.

The extreme polarization has been a worrisome trend. (see my  commentary about the loss of a rational debate culture). Some, like the bipartisan No Labels group in Congress have tried bridge the gap. I profiled the linguist Kathryn Ruud who gathers examples of right- and left-wing commentators dehumanizing their opponents in similar terms as the ones the Nazis used in Germany.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Perhaps the discord of the Obama years is understandable. He took the reins in challenging times. After the real estate mortgage bubble had burst in 2008, the U.S. economy was in a downward spiral. The $ 787 billion stimulus program may have staved off even greater job loss but the rate still oared much higher than predicted. It peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 before it finally began its painfully slow decline.

Unemployed construction workers in Las Vegas

Unemployed construction workers in Las Vegas

Again and again, I told the stories of the unemployed. In 2009, I wrote about the One Stop Career Center in DC . In 2010 I wrote about unemployed construction workers in Las Vegas, which was still reeling from the real estate crisis.

By 2011, the national rate was down to 9 percent, but the U.S. was facing a problem previously associated with Europe’s welfare states: long-term unemployment. In Trenton, New Jersey, I wrote a feature about Krishnan Narayanan, who had immigrated from India 40 years ago and lived the American Dream. Now, with 57, the engineer and IT specialist was one of 4.5 million who had been out of a job for over a year.

America’s public and political class agreed on the diagnosis, but was divided on the cure. Democrats called for more spending, Republicans for lower taxes – but neither had a solution for what has now become the country’s most urgent problem.

Deficits and debts are out of control, not just on the national but also on the state level. In 2010, I wrote a feature about the Treasurer of Arizona who had sold parts of the Capitol building to raise money.

Never bored: Reporters in the Senate Press Gallery

Never bored: Reporters in the Senate Press Gallery

In 2011, Congress nearly missed the deadline for raising the debt ceiling – almost triggering default. Then a bipartisan committee instated by the President failed to reach a deal. (see my commentary about this embarrassing outcome). The budget fight was postponed until the end of 2012 and only partially resolved with the New Year’s Day compromise to let the Bush era tax cuts for the rich expire.

As the Obama administration enters its second term, the next debt ceiling fight is looming yet again. After the horrific school shooting in Newton, the debate over gun control has rekindled the partisan rancor. None of this will be easy. So enjoy the parade next Monday – and then stay tuned for the next installment of drama on the Hill.

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