The unthinkable has happened. Just when the struggling US economy was regaining its health with a positive knock-on effect for world markets, the federal government irresponsibly shuts shop over a budget wrangle. Some 800,000 civil servants have been forced to take an extended unpaid holiday; essential staff has been ordered to keep working without pay, while national parks and museums are closed impacting tourism. America’s borders are now unprotected, guarded by skeleton security crews, and cancer drug trials have been brought to a halt.
Unlike the 2008 economic downturn, greedy banks and financial institutions can’t be blamed. I sympathise with low income government workers living from pay cheque to pay cheque who fear they may be unable to pay their mortgages or keep up with car payments but blame the Administration and Congress for holding its people’s welfare so cheap without a thought for the rest of the world.
The US dollar’s slide to a three month low is infecting other currencies, while jittery bourses are experiencing volatility. The only winners are manufacturers of T-shirts emblazoned with messages lambasting those responsible for this mess; they’re doing a roaring trade. No wonder! Americans are right to be angry. This is a deliberate man-made disaster that’s arisen out of Republicans choosing to hold the nation hostage over Obamacare, passed into law almost four years ago when Democrats were the majority in the House and the Senate, which came into effect on October 1st.
The right wing’s rejection of a scheme that would give millions of Americans access to health care via government subsidized insurance is almost impossible for non-Americans to understand, especially those living in first world democracies who look upon free health care as a basic human right. It’s shocking to note that 48 million (15.4 per cent of the population) Americans are without health insurance. This translates to people who are ill being unable to visit a doctor or fill a prescription simply because they can’t afford it. A 2012 survey found that 41 per cent of working-age adults (75 million) had difficulty in paying medical bills with four million declaring bankruptcy after being harassed by debt collectors.
There could be worse to come if this impasse between the Obama Administration and House Republicans isn’t resolved soon. Congress needs to approve a lifting of the US debt ceiling by October 17th else send the US economy – and most others along with it - into freefall. The US Treasury has announced that a failure to raise the ceiling could result in the US defaulting on its debts which could lead to a financial crisis on par with 2008, if not worse; an analysis shared by IMF chief Christine Legarde who says it’s “mission critical” that a new debt ceiling is agreed.
“Critical” it might be, but there’s no guarantee that Republicans will heed the call. President Obama is clearly concerned. On October 3rd, he told CBC’s John Harwood that the Street should be worried about the “suicide caucus” of the House Republicans who may decline to lift the debt limit. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Republicans are blackmailing the president to ditch or delay Obamacare, or else; Obama insists it stays and is not up for discussion. Neither side is talking, let along negotiating a way out eliciting accusations that the President and the Republican House Speaker John Boehner are behaving like kids squabbling in a playground over a football, except at stake are the lives of millions of Americans, and millions more around the world.
Republicans are bearing the brunt of public condemnation. An ad created by the House Majority PAC shows a crying baby narrated with the words “Speaker John Boehner didn’t get his way on shutting down health care reform. So, he’s shut down the government and hurt the economy.” With House elections scheduled for November next year, Republicans are counting on short memories.
If this is democracy at work, the same democracy Americans tout as the political Holy Grail to be emulated by other nations, they can keep it. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that leaves a country without direction, in stagnation, without a budget and potentially without the wherewithal to settle its debts. The credibility of the planet’s wealthiest nation, the world’s economic powerhouse that’s traditionally dictated trends, has been shot – and the effects are already being felt. Faced with this crisis, Obama has cancelled his visits to the APEC and East Asia summits, dominated by China, which is just as well. How can he advise on Asian economies when his own may go into its death throes? US talks with the EU over a free trade pact have also been embarrassingly postponed.
The bottom line is the buck stops with Obama; he’s the man in charge. If this festering quagmire drags on resulting in the worst case scenario, he’ll be seen as global enemy number one. On his watch, America has bled geopolitical influence. His efforts towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are a joke. His administration is detested by Egyptians of every political colour and the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud Al-Faisal was driven to cancel his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in protest against the UN’s neglect of the UN’s inability to resolve the Palestinian issue “for over 60 years” and for taking Syria into a “dark tunnel of negotiations and procedures” to disarm Assad of chemical weapons even as the civil war rages on. Between the lines, the disapproving Saudi stance is targeted at the US.
Obama must get his own house in order not only for the sake of the American people, but also to retain his nation’s revered top slot in the global economic and geopolitical hierarchy before the world concludes the US is just an aging tiger without teeth.