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Obama in Chains

NEW YORK – It is hard for international observers of the United States to grasp the political paralysis that grips the country, and that seriously threatens America’s ability to solve its domestic problems and contribute to international problem solving. America’s governance crisis is the worst in modern history. Moreover, it is likely to worsen in the years ahead.

The difficulties that President Barack Obama is having in passing his basic program, whether in health care, climate change, or financial reform, are hard to understand at first glance. After all, he is personally popular, and his Democratic Party holds commanding majorities in both houses of Congress. Yet his agenda is stalled and the country’s ideological divisions grow deeper.

Among Democrats, Obama’s approval rating in early November was 84%, compared with just 18% among Republicans. Fifty-eight percent of Democrats thought the country was headed in the right direction, compared with 9% of Republicans. Only 18 % of Democrats supported sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while 57% of Republicans supported a troop buildup. In fact, a significant majority of Democrats, 60%, favored a reduction of troops in Afghanistan, compared with just 26% of Republicans. On all of these questions, a middle ground of independents (neither Democrats nor Republicans) was more evenly divided.

Part of the cause for these huge divergences in views is that America is an increasingly polarized society. Political divisions have widened between the rich and poor, among ethnic groups (non-Hispanic whites versus African Americans and Hispanics), across religious affiliations, between native-born and immigrants, and along other social fault lines. American politics has become venomous as the belief has grown, especially on the vocal far right, that government policy is a “zero-sum” struggle between different social groups and politics.