By Matthew Stevenson
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.
If the American presidential race ended today, based on the ratings sweeps of the television networks and national polling organizations, President Barack Obama would win reelection, the Republicans would control the House of Representatives, the Senate would have a Democratic majority but a conservative bias, and the United States would be in position for another four years of deadlocked politics.
The irony of the 2012 election is that while Americans tell pollsters that they have little confidence in Obama, none in the economy, and despise the Congress for shrill partisan politics, they will, nevertheless, reelect most incumbents in the November election.
A second irony is that while a majority of American deplore the inability of the president and Congress to compromise on such issues as the deficit, taxes, and spending, when they cast their votes in the various federal races (for the president, senators, and members of Congress), they will be endorsing the stalemate coalition in Washington. What explains such self-destructive voting patterns?
A large reason that electoral politics in the United States no longer “work” is because party affiliation to the Democrats and Republicans changes between the presidential race and those below it for the Congress.
So-called split tickets—when you vote for Obama but then a Republican member of Congress—will not be uncommon in the 2012 election, because in each case, the voter will likely be siding with the incumbent.
Why? I would argue that party affiliation means less and less in American politics, that voters choose their party identity from their parents (interestingly, it is usually from the mother), but then they cast votes depending on economic or emotional issues—regardless of their party label. Few Americans vote “the ticket,” meaning all the party candidates on the ballot.
Nor have the national political parties been successful in branding themselves uniformly across the country. A Democrat in New York might be for gun control, for abortion, and against the war in Afghanistan, while a Democrat in Colorado might have just the opposite views.
On the Republican side, Tea Partyers and those who gathered at the convention in Tampa had the look of extreme social conservatives—against abortion and healthcare reform, for school prayer and cuts to entitlements. Nevertheless, they nominated as their presidential candidate Mitt Romney, arguably (judging by his past policies as governor) the most liberal Republican to stand for the highest office since Gerald Ford or Dwight Eisenhower.
For the moment the biggest beneficiary of schizophrenic voting patterns is Barack Obama, whose approval ratings have languished below 50 percent for most of his presidency. When asked, Americans say that the country, economy, Supreme Court, and foreign affairs are all headed “in the wrong direction.” So why will he be reelected?
Because (I would argue) of a Constitutional muddle in 1789, the American Presidency is a hydra-headed office, combining that of a monarch with the responsibilities of a prime minister. In most countries, these jobs are divided. In the United States, the president has both.
If running for reelection just as prime minister, Obama would be swept from office. Despite running up $5 trillion in new debts over the last four years, the effective unemployment rate is close to 15 or 20 percent, and the only new jobs created have been by Washington agencies that tap phones and promote foreign wars.
If overwhelmed as prime minister, Obama has better standing as a constitutional monarch, someone whose daily branding exercises (all those speeches and beer summits) speak to American self-images about fairness, equality, and justice. By contrast, Romney and his knights errant look as they though they will come for your cattle.
The phrase used in newspapers about Obama is “likability,” but what it means is that he fills emotional and psychological requirements that Americans have about their head of state—even if he accomplishes little as the leader of the Democratic party or the government.
On the job President Obama is not unlike Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, who is admired for her guiding presence over some mythical English ideal, but who no one would want to lead one of the parties in Parliament.
Part of the reason that the American presidency has become detached from the politics of governance is that millions of dollars in corporate funding has transformed the office into cable television’s version of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.
Compare Barack Obama’s stately processions (his entourage is about 700 when he goes abroad, and includes food tasters) with that of the Swiss president, getting around with a Prius and one guard.
If the presidential election is about choosing a prime-time monarch, the races in the House of Representatives and Senate are about the division of national spoils. In chasing the greased pig, the Republican party is ascendant, because of economic discontent.
Whatever their feelings about presidential pomp and circumstance, on state and congressional levels more American voters today are nervous about the economy, the debt to the Chinese, their lack of jobs, and the country’s drift into insolvency.
This frisson will lead to a Democratic president and a Republican majority in the Congress, but a leadership vacuum in the governing coalition. In other words, a logical system of governance—as Mark Twain said “the best that money can buy”— will have produced an illogical government.
Ed. note: this article appeared in French in Le Temps 11 September 2012
Thomas Jefferson called the American presidency “a bad edition of the Polish king.” In the intervening two centuries, however, the office has become one that not even the Poles would trade for a Teutonic knight or Lithuanian count.
To elect a president now costs $1 billion, and the time needed ranges from two years to eternity. For all that invested capital, who gets to vote for a candidate who articulates their political views?
On paper, the Democratic Party stands for the working classes; government support for the underprivileged; skepticism about corporate concentrations of power; and a foreign policy that, from Woodrow Wilson, talks about trying to “keep us out of wars.”
Yet, the point can be made that a voter for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2012 will be endorsing corporate bailouts, sweetheart bank deals, unlawful search-and-seizure procedures and the flight plans of drone missiles flying over most countries in the Middle East — if not the Paramus Mall.
The Republicans, meanwhile, make claims of fiscal responsibility, limits on government powers, middle-class values and, abroad, a combination of realpolitik and trade.
Those slogans sound fine on bumper stickers. Except that the last time the voters chose a Republican president, they ended up with several undeclared wars, budget deficits, Orwellian federal agencies that tap phones and read e-mails — and mismanagement of the economy that robbed middle-class Americans of homes and equity.
Another reason a billion-dollar election yields up hundred-dollar candidates is because, the presidency has also become a bad edition of daytime television.
POLITICO regularly runs President Barack Obama’s daily schedule, which often goes something like this: brief morning conversation with aides in the Oval Office on the daily crisis; flight to some swing state, often Ohio, North Carolina or Colorado; speech to an adoring audience, featuring soccer moms or the sympathetic unemployed; uptown dinner with campaign contributors, all of whom want to meet George Clooney.
Who can run a serious government in between such a peripatetic schedule? Air Force One has been used, on average, every other day of the Obama presidency. In four years as president, Abraham Lincoln never even went to New York City. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to go to a foreign country; Obama has been to 32.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney has to work harder for his sound bites, but he reminds me of those TV anchormen who interrupt “Judge Judy” to announce: “New revelations on the Obama deficit fraud. More at 6.” The screen freezes to an image of an anchorman with perfect teeth and hair — who looks just like Romney.
One reason this campaign has descended into a game show (“Who Wants to Be a President?”) is because the Original Intenters at the 1787 Constitutional Convention disagreed about the office of the chief executive.
Alexander Hamilton and John Adams wanted the head of state to have the aura of a European monarch, if not lifetime tenure or hereditary succession. Benjamin Franklin and others preferred the Swiss model — under which the office of the chief executive would be made up of a rotating federal council, so no one person would become an elected monarch.
At early State of the Union addresses, members of Congress debated passionately about whether they needed to stand up when the president entered the chamber — fearful that it would show undue reverence for just another public official.
Imagine telling those early members of Congress that the president now travels abroad with an entourage that reportedly includes “500 staff, 200 Secret Service agents, six doctors, personal chefs and the president’s own food and water, 35 vehicles, four speechwriters, 12 teleprompters and 15 sniffer dogs,” according to factchecker.org.
One reason that Obama spends so many of his days in the vacuous rounds of a British monarch — greeting the Chicago Bears, taking Bo to the mall — is because he has little chance to implement his legislative agenda, at least while Republicans control the House.
Because the Constitution is mute on the subject of political parties, no provision was made in government for a prime minister. Some countries, like France, have a president and a prime minister. But the U.S. combines the duties of the two in one position — though the president often lacks a majority of his party in one or both houses of Congress, leading to stalemates.
About all Obama can now do in Congress is to support bills (see the “Buffett rule” tax plan) that he knows will be turned down, then complain that the GOP majority is coddling billionaires.
Instead of being the most powerful man in the world, the U.S. president has become little more than a talk show host, not unlike Dr. Phil — obliged to script a daily program that has tragedy (Trayvon Martin), concern (meeting with autoworkers), music (the slow jam) and something upbeat (solar energy factory tour).
If electing a president costs $1 billion and takes up all of our time, maybe the solution isn’t yet another ratings sweep between two teleprompted anchors but to change the office?
The Swiss model, which so enticed Franklin and Jefferson, runs like this: The major political parties in the Senate and House elect, according to their political strength, the members of a seven-member federal council. This body, in turn, selects the main Cabinet jobs.
Each year, one member of the council serves as the president — to greet foreign leaders and speak for Switzerland in a crisis. The real chief executive, however, is the entire federal council, not one person. In recent years, the president has often been a woman.
By Andy Sundberg
One thing overseas Americans seem to have systematically overlooked so far, in our efforts to try to bring about changes in the current US tax legislation, is the fact that many in Washington may have their most fundamental core beliefs about taxation not based upon reason at all but elsewhere, and possibly most powerfully in the various versions of Holy Scriptures.
We have traditionally built our appeals almost entirely on the basis of facts, common sense, secular history, and so on. Perhaps we have been fundamentally deluding ourselves in terms of how the process really works today, and what the most powerful neuron motivations really are in the benighted City Upon a Hill.
If we want to have an effective impact on future deliberations in the Congress, and in the Executive Branch, too, we might be well advised to spend some time now trying to build up the metaphysical dimensions of our arguments in favor of what we think would be greater equity in the way we are being treated, and especially as justified by appropriate divine commitments.
If you Google the question: “taxation in the Bible”, as I did this morning, within 6 seconds you will have the option of viewing more than 6 million responses! Wow! Obviously a lot of folks have already been there and done that.
Three of the articles that popped up among the very first on this enormous list are below, as well as a website that has a lot of additional chatter about taxation in the Bible, provocative questions about taxing only “foreigners” and why the role of Jesus in tax issues might have contributed to his crucifixion!
So if we want to be properly prepared from now on when we meet key leaders on the Hill, we should try to get up to speed on their possible meta-fiscal sensitivities and vulnerabilities too. Yes, yes, I know that this is a very sensitive issue. But that doesn’t mean we should simply ignore it.
Here in this summary table is an overall breakdown of religious affiliations of the current members of the 112th Congress.
Now, over to you. Please share your thoughts on this new dimension of our common endeavors.
Could paying attention to this additional dimension of an already immensely complex and highly emotional issue possibly contribute productively to a quicker and more efficient game-changing resolution once and for all?
What Google gave me:
What does the Bible say about paying taxes? by Mary Fairchild, About.com
The Bible speaks on taxation (tribute) by Pastor Art Kohl, Faith Bible Baptist Church, 2002
Taxation, liberty and the Bible – Biblical tax and the various tithes by Martin G Selbrede, The Covenant News, 25 January 2009 . Martin G. Selbrede is the Vice President of the Chalcedon Foundation.
If you want to have some more fun, go to this website and read what this analyst has to say: What is taxed, which starts off with Who would Jesus tax? Data mining the Bible.
Ed. note: Andy Sundberg, founder of American Citizens Abroad and a fellow of the Overseas American Academy, occasionally contributes to this guest blog.
by Matthew Stevenson
republished from NewGeography.com, with permission
General Stanley McChrystal may be the first commanding general in the history of warfare to be relieved of his command because he groaned over the receipt of an email from an ambassador, or because one of his aides whispered to a Rolling Stone reporter that the president had looked “intimidated” in a meeting with the military brass.
In terms of carrying out strategy, it has been stated that the president had no military complaints about the heavy metal general, who was walking the impossibly thin red line between a general war in Afghanistan and a campaign waged only with assassinations and drone missiles.
Just a month before his firing, McChrystal successfully packaged a tour of the White House and Capitol Hill for President Hamid Karzai. In earlier media campaigns—notably when the president flew into Kabul in the dead of night to lecture a pajama-clad Karzi over corruption—the Afghan president was deemed unworthy of an American war effort.
However briefly, McChrystal had succeeded in integrating the Afghan government into the order of battle. So why was he sacked for humming a few bars of Satisfaction in the presence of a rock reporter?
No doubt McChrystal had his enemies within the bureaucracy, including the ubiquitous ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, former general Karl W. Eikenberry. Along with these two add in a legion of jealous Army politicos, all of whom would love to wear combat fatigues to a presidential photo-op.
In relieving General McChrystal, perhaps as part of a search for his mojo, President Obama joins a long line of presidents who never figured out how to command their commanders. Here’s a brief summary of some of the more complicated relationships between American presidents and their field generals:
President Lincoln Often praised for his habits of command in the Civil War, he nevertheless promoted, endorsed, and endured the incompetence of such generals as McClellan, Meade, Burnside, Pope, and Rosecrans before winning the war with Grant and Sherman, both of whom would horrify a Senate confirmation hearing, let alone the editors of Rolling Stone.
Grant was a drunk who killed thousands at Shiloh and Spotsylvania, and Sherman once celebrated the drowning of a boatload of reporters, pointing out that maybe their “heavy thoughts” had taken them to the bottom. He also burned Atlanta. Both understood how to win modern wars.
by Andy Sundberg
Andy Sundberg is a committee member of American Citizens Abroad (ACA), which is based in Geneva, Switzerland
Background: “US, Switzerland ‘initial’ revised double taxation agreement”, 19 June 2009, GenevaLunch
There is, alas, much more to this story than what has appeared in print so far.
When ACA first learned about these negotiations, a few weeks ago, we asked the U.S. Embassy staff in Bern to help us arrange a meeting with the U.S. Delegation from Washington that would be coming to negotiate with the Swiss Government in Bern. All of their attempts were rebuffed.
We then asked members of the U.S. Embassy staff in Bern to please transmit our written requests to the team. What we hoped to see happen was for this revised agreement with Switzerland to include provisions that were already contained in some other recently revised double taxation agreements with other countries. We had learned that such provisions were supposed to become standard components of all future double taxation treaty revisions.
by Andy Sundberg
Andy Sundberg is a long-term US resident overseas and founder and director of several overseas American organizations
Given the preeminent role that the United States plays, and wants to keep playing, in world trade, what we do and how we try to do it can have enormous consequences for all of us.
But in a world in which raw materials and manufactured components are moving across borders at a record pace, and worldwide sourcing is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, what does the concept of “Buy American” really mean anymore? Paradoxically, it might just make “Selling American” much more difficult.
Imagine also, for a moment, that the U.S. Government actually started to see the wisdom of regularly talking to private sector overseas Americans too, to try to get a better feel for what is actually happening on the ground all over the world. This is not the realm of diplomats but of the practical day to day life of tough and creative decision-makers in myriad markets scattered all across our planet.
Sounds utopian today, doesn’t it, but who knows, maybe we as a nation might finally grow up and open our eyes and ears to learn some useful lessons from this freely available source of priceless knowledge and hard earned experience.
Such is the common wisdom and practice of a growing number of other countries who have already integrated their diasporas into their strategic planning and national promotion.
The following stories in the Financial Times address some of these themes. They have enormous implications not only for folks back home but also for U.S. citizens living and working abroad.
Andy Sundberg is a long-term US resident overseas and founder and director of several overseas American organizations
If you read the speech that President Barack Obama addressed to the Congress (Ed. note: video at the end of this post) yesterday, it will take a bit of an effort to try to find any mention of Americans who live and work abroad. But there are some and I have highlighted a couple of these for you.
Okay, okay, we are only about 4 million, or just a bit over 1% of the total U.S. population, so we should exercise our long familiar self-restraint and humility in any such quest. And, of course we also have to accept the sad fact that we have long been ignored or even suspected of perfidy for having chosen to live away from our home country. But, at least from our own perspective, many of us actually do believe that we fill a rather unique and very positive role in our nation’s and the entire world’s economy, so our curiosity as to where we might fit into the latest initiatives of our new government are certainly legitimate.
I ended my last blog entry with astonishment at the happiness level of the people of Bhutan as measured by Adrian White at
the University of Leicester in the UK. Bhutan shares the 4th happiest country in the world position with Brunei, Canada, Ireland and Luxembourg. Bhutanese live 20 to 25 years less, earn a fraction of the yearly wealth and have half the literacy rate of these countries. This defies Professor White’s theory that happiness is the result of abundant health, wealth and education.
So why are Bhutanese so
Professor White suggests that Bhutan’s strong national identity, their beautiful scenery and intact culture explains their
high level of happiness.
Bhutan’s national identity is fiercely protected by the government, which is famous for
it’s Gross National Happiness policy.
Bhutan strictly enforces annual
limits to the number of tourists who can visit. In 2007, about 21,000 tourists
entered the Kingdom and the government sees little reason to increase this
number. The stated reason for this, according to a tourist website is to “avoid the negative impacts of
tourism on the culture and the environment.” Tourists need to be on a guided
tour for the duration of their visit.
The tiny kingdom, about the size of Switzerland is surrounded by the beautiful Himalayan mountains which both isolates and protects it from the outside world and makes travel difficult at best. Television and
internet was only allowed throughout the country starting in 1999 and is government controlled. Television program are allowed based on what increases a person’s happiness. The government recently decided that watching MTV and World Wide Wrestling do not make people happier so they were taken off the air.
Buddhism has been the dominant religion in Bhutan since the 7th century. The Bhutan Tourism Corporation Ltd.
website states that Buddhism “has inculcated deeply the value that all forms of
sentient life, not just human life, are precious and sacred.” This statement
conflicts drastically with the government’s expulsion of over 100,000
Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas in the early 1990’s. The Lhotshampas practice the
Hindu religion. The 1988 census revealed that the Nepali’s constituted 45% of
the population in Bhutan,
threatening to become the majority. The Lhotshampas have been exiled in Nepal and
confined into seven refugee camps for the past 15 years. A detailed history of
their situation is found on the UNHCR site.
Hindus are not the only devalued religious group in Bhutan. Bhutan4Christ is a website
which details the struggles that Christians have experienced in Bhutan.
Yesterday the BBC reported that the first group of
Bhutanese refugees were being resettled in the US and New Zealand.
Perhaps they will find freedom to practice the religion of their choice in
After 15 years in a refugee camp, perhaps they will finally find