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An America That Says No – To Itself

After the State of the Union speech, a United States that can’t agree on anything?

January 24, 2015

NASA HQ PHOTO / flickr

A quarter century ago, Shintaro Ishihara published a now (in)famous essay under the title “The Japan That Can Say No.” In his 1989 think piece, the man who later became Governor of Tokyo argued that the time for Japan to act as a “yes man” to the United States was over.

After Barack Obama’s second-to-last State of the Union speech (and the hardline reception it found among Republicans), we may have arrived at a similarly stunning moment in the annals of modern politics.

Is the world about to experience an America that, despite its official name, is so dis-united that, owing to the lack of any meaningful cooperation, it is in essence saying “no” to itself? Is this a responsible way to demonstrate U.S. “leadership” globally?

After all, in order to solve its pressing domestic problems, a country needs to preserve a sufficient amount of bipartisanship. And of those, there are actually many in the United States, despite its relatively better economic performance when compared to other nations.

Rhetoric only goes so far

In particular, the clear political sentiment among middle class voters is that they are not even managing to tread in place. While wages stagnate for most, or even decline, and good jobs remain hard to come by, prices for many key items – from education to health care – keep rising.

Republicans maintain their principal stance of pinning the blame for all that’s wrong on Mr. Obama (witness, as one example, their critique of “Obamacare”). Playing of the blame game card obviously worked for Republicans in the 2014 mid-term elections.

But now, the question even for them is how much longer they can keep playing this card. At some point, voters in the center must wonder whether that is just a distraction maneuver.

Of course, there are those who will argue that gridlock — even of the severe, gotcha kind that we are seeing now — is all well and good. Elections, to be held in due course (2016), will resolve the current standstill. In the meantime, politicians of either side will just block each other in their zeal to implement partisan solutions.

More government, really?

Republicans like to argue that anything Obama and the Democrats are proposing will lead to “more government.” While that is their – so far rhetorically very effective — mantra, they know this is not true.

In reality, what the Obama proposals do lead to is more strictures on the vested interests of Republicans’ core clientele. But instead of admitting that, they raise the claim about “more government.”

There is a clear danger in that. Centrist voters may at some point wake up to the underlying reality that a very effective Republican rhetoric only has one real goal: protecting the interests of the well-to-do, while wrapping themselves in anti-government rhetoric.

Why wait?

The question is: Why wait? Take tax reform. Getting to agreement there really is a no brainer – by opting simultaneously for what Republicans want (corporate tax reform, to eliminate loopholes and bringing rates down) and what Obama has proposed (upping the low capital gains tax rate, to ensure that rich people’s effective tax rate isn’t lower than most Americans).

Taking both of these steps at the same time is the essence of politics – you got what you want, but also have to swallow some things you don’t like so much. Easy enough to accomplish – or so one should think.

Given that many U.S. lawmakers are lawyers, they should not act as absolutists, but be temperamentally suited to the fashioning of somewhat murky, but still effective compromises.

If instead, as the current odds are, Republicans are hoping to “meet” the President only on their terms – say, if and when he goes for items they like, such as Trade Promotion Authority and the transpacific and transatlantic trade deals under negotiation – then they basically keep proposing a very one-sided deal.

As a result, the U.S.’s national agenda may well stand still – to the extent that it can’t be shaped or tilted outside of the legislative process by the U.S. Supreme Court.

All of that, to put it mildly, is a very suboptimal outcome. And one that hinges on a complete Republican victory come 2016 (that is, a Republican will capture the White House). But if a Democrat wins, say, Hillary Clinton, then waiting two more years for “resolution” will prove to be time completely wasted on the road to compromise.

Why the United States matters globally

All of this is bad enough when viewed just within the confines of the United States. However, we live in a time when the global economy is facing more uncertainty collectively than has been the case in a long time.

At such a moment, to see a United States whose capital city and entire political process is at complete loggerheads is not what the rest of the world hopes for.

U.S. dynamism matters, for a whole host of reasons. Probably the biggest one of them is that a dynamic United States forces other countries to rethink their act. In contrast, a stalemated United States — one that basks in the false glory of protecting vested interests at home — only strengthens the forces of standstill elsewhere.


An America that says “no” to itself: Is this a responsible way to demonstrate US “leadership” globally?

Getting to agreement on tax reform is a no brainer –opt for both what Republicans want and what Obama proposed.

The essence of politics – you got what you want, but also have to swallow some things you don't like so much.

A dynamic United States forces other countries to rethink their act.

A stalemated United States only strengthens the forces of standstill elsewhere.