Is the US still No.1?

When Americans vote in November, they may be selecting a president whose main job is simply to manage the US’ decline.

The Cafe - US: Still #1?
Hope officially arrived in the White House four years ago, but disillusionment and despair now seems to prevail [GALLO/GETTY]

“Just in case you wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know,” Will McAvoy, the fictional news anchor in the new US television drama, The Newsroom, tells a college student in the opening episode of the show.

“One of ’em is there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labour force and number four in exports.”

He continues: “We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defence spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.”

McAvoy concludes his rant: “Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are, without a doubt, a member of the worst period generation period ever period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the f**k you’re talking about!”
The United States of America is at a crossroads. US global supremacy is being challenged – politically, economically and militarily. And the person many Americans want to blame is the president who promised them change.

It has been four years since hope officially arrived in the White House, in the form of an eloquent, black liberal named Barack Hussein Obama. But the latter’s failure to turn the economy around, tackle the jobs crisis or rein in the bankers has led to disillusionment and even despair among his supporters.

Meanwhile, the new era of co-operation promised by Obama was torpedoed by a stubbornly intransigent and ideologically extreme Republican Party in Congress. The rise of the right-wing, anti-government Tea Party and the street protests of the left-wing, anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement were perhaps the most visible symbols of how divided the US has become since 2008.

“As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarised along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” noted a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.
Obama has antagonised liberals as well as conservatives. He has sanctioned six times as many drone strikes inside Pakistan as his Republican predecessor George W Bush that, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, may have killed between 282 and 585 civilians.

Obama has even signed off on a law that permits the indefinite detention in military custody of US citizens suspected of being terrorists. As the leading US legal scholar Jonathan Turley has argued: “The election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties.”
Defenders of the US president point to his successes. Abroad, he ended the war in Iraq, set a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan and killed the most wanted man in history. At home, he pushed through health care reforms that had stymied Democratic presidents for decades and produced a bailout package that rescued the beleaguered US car industry. In the words of his vice president Joe Biden, thanks to Obama’s policies, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive”.

But is this enough to secure him re-election for a second term? And whoever wins in November, Obama or the Republicans’ Mitt Romney, is the job of the US president now simply to manage American decline?

Watch The Cafe from Washington DC at the following times on Al Jazeera English: Friday, August 24 at 2000GMT; Saturday, August 25 at 1200GMT; Sunday, August 26 at 0100GMT; and Monday, August 27 at 0600GMT. Click here for more on The Cafe.