US President Barack Obama delivered his most important State of the Nation address this week. The man who seemed to respond to so many dreams is, as president, as emotionally stiff as the way he carries his body. And to be in the US is to realise that one is in a nation that has not been well-governed for some time.

In Boston, where I live, there is an ongoing procession of lawmakers and state government officials who are being unmasked as corrupt, or at the very least accused of nepotism. One official, who staunchly claimed his innocence, was this week jailed for three years.

But it is more than corruption that has delayed development, it is lawmakers who are obsessed with media coverage and will do almost anything to get their 10 seconds of fame on the box. Most often it is nasty attacks on fellow lawmakers. It is this that has most seriously damaged this nation. The enemies to America are not outside its borders, those who cause the most harm are senior public officials in Congress and in the 50 States. Sarah Palin having opposition leaders in rifle cross hairs on her website is an example.

Others are simply nuts. Eliot Weinberger, reviewing George W Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, in the January 6, London Review of Books, notes some of the law measures mooted under the Bush presidency. There was “the New Freedom Initiative which proposed testing all Americans, beginning with schoolchildren for mental illness” — with politicians like this, why are Americans concerned by Osama bin Laden?

Yet another measure that came before Congress was the development of “pamphlets sold by the National Parks Service explaining that the Grand Canyon was created by the Flood” yet another calling for “research by the National Institutes of Health on whether prayer can cure cancer (“imperative” because poor people have limited access to healthcare)”.

When I read these on an Amtrak train travelling from Boston to Washington I laughed. It was the highlight of my trip. I was on an express train that was supposed to take six and a half hours, it took 10 and a half. I travelled first class in a compartment that would be considered general in Europe and that would be in a museum in Japan. When I closed my eyes it felt like being in a bakkie going over uneven road.

The trains are not only slower than they should be in a nation of this importance, they are expensive, and so the airports are clogged and any lip service to global warming is a joke. (Why did I take one? With endless snow storms grounding planes, trains are usually more reliable). Obama said attention would be paid to the trains in his State of the Nation address, but the extent of the problem is so severe, and the US fiscus in such bad shape, it will be interesting to see how this will be funded, and how long improvements will take to filter through.

The other real enemy within is a significant slice of media, especially television, that is infantile and obsessed by the parochial. It is difficult to find news about the world outside these borders. I found out about the Moscow airport bombing on Facebook, could find nothing on television news bulletins and ultimately resorted to online sources. Of course, no Americans died in the bombing that took 35 lives and wounded 180 others. (You can’t imagine how dull CNN within America is, no wonder so many switch on to Extreme Baking shows.)

Obama called for the US to become more competitive, but if it lacks a world view, how can it compete?

Assailed by attacks from the right, Obama has become centrist and leery of upsetting the right and so, despite, a congresswoman battling with a bullet in her brain in a Texas rehab, he has said nothing about gun control. He steered clear of saying much about the health bill, which is under attack despite recent tax cuts for the rich.

The New York Review of Books, February 10, 2011 dryly observes that: “A poll released on January 2 by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair asked respondents how they would balance the budget. Answers: increase taxes on the wealthy, 61%; cut defence spending, 20%; cut Medicare, 4%; cut Social Security, 3%. Evidently the American people are socialists.”

Obama believes they are not. “Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back,” Obama said. “Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.” I would be interested to find a broker that would agree that the “stock market has come roaring back,” there is general agreement that this recession is a long way from being over.

Obama needs to ignore the loud talk show hosts, the polls, the ratings; he needs to govern with heart. But too many already see him as the Tin Man, the figure from the Wizard of Oz that had no heart.

As someone who has lived in Africa, South America and Asia, to live in the US and experience rutted roads in major cities, filthy rail stations, and bus-stops that commuters huddle under with no shelter in minus 10 deg C weather, is a shock.

And then there is savagery of the national discourse. South Africans indulge in hearty debate, but in the US there is a level of bullying meanness that is unnerving. From cheap shots among politicians, to a glut of “reality” television where the more contemptible your behaviour, the more likely you will “win”. Violent, graphic, crime shows are screened over and over on cable television: no wonder there is a penchant for public shootings; the populace is inured to violence.

Advertisers ridicule their competition instead of showing what makes their product best. And so many major companies have closed because they became lazy about innovation. And that is what the US government does: it pillories the foreign powers it dislikes, but does too little to remedy ills at home and to foster that which is good.

The US also has the worst levels of customer service I have yet experienced. If you don’t like it, send it back or dispose of it. There is a failure to commit. A failure to commit to great design, so that products are not faulty. A failure to understand and respect markets, locally and globally.

There is a failure by companies to commit to their people; here a month’s maternity leave is the norm. Two weeks annual leave. And yet unions are almost extinct here, but corruption and being bought off has a lot to do with that.

There is a lack of decent, affordable pre-school and after-school care, educational standards have plummeted, the sort of fare on television for teenagers, in particular, encourages immature and often dangerous conduct and work rules often fail to acknowledge the importance of family.

Some of the accommodation seen along the Amtrak route between Philadelphia and Washington would be considered scandalous in South Africa and yet it goes without comment here. For too long the US has meddled in the affairs of others and done too little to clean up its own backyard, and now it is in trouble and not sure how to get out of it.

In his address, Obama called for $400 billion in cuts in domestic spending while calling for Americans to “win the future by out-innovating, out-educating and out-building our competitors around the world”.

The last sentence refers to exceptionally long-range planning, it will require an injection of billions (from an essentially bankrupt fiscus) into adult education, skills training and school education to create a nation that can out-innovate, out-educate and out-build global competitors. Most of all, it requires a radical change in attitude in Americans toward themselves and their lives.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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