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'We're witnessing a catastrophe on multiple levels... it will take America a long way down the road to the status of a banana republic' Today is President Obama's 50th birthday but, writes David Williamson, he is faced with challenges which will define the next half-century of American life.

Byline: David Williamson

* ARACK Obama turns 50 today as the president of a faltering superpower beset by inequality and defined by fierce ideological divides and economic woes.

The United States enjoys unrivalled military power but this week's deal to raise the ceiling on America's $14.3 trillion debt has exposed deep fiscal and political weakness.

The Democrat leader is under fire from his own party's supporters for a "surrender" which could see government spending fall by $2.1 trillion.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman provided the most damning assessment of the deal in his New York Times column.

He wrote: "It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America's long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status...

"Make no mistake about it, what we're witnessing here is a catastrophe on multiple levels."

Mr Obama has avoided a default on Government debt but the spectacle of the White House held to ransom by Republics beholden to "Tea Party" zealots has done nothing to fix the perception that American politics is broken.

Mr Obama came to power with the promise of change and in 15 months he will face voters again.

He has secured landmark healthcare legislation - which Republican lawmakers are now under pressure to unpick - and he presided over the killing of Osama bin Laden, but the electorate will inevitably contrast the messianic hope they invested in him in 2008 with their experience of his leadership.

Dick Morris, a political analyst who has advised prominent Republicans and Democrats, including President Clinton, did not pull his punches.

"The pathetic performance of President Obama in the debt debate is showing the left how incompetent and weak the leader they selected is," he wrote.

"Many are wishing they had Hillary Clinton in the White House instead. Once Obama has to move beyond a set teleprompter speech, he is lost.

"During the BP disaster, he showed what a poor administrator he is and now he has belied any pretensions to legislative skill."

The greatest danger for Mr Obama in 2012 is that the young and minority voters who turned out for him in 2008 will stay at home.

Conversely, his greatest advantage is that his Republican challenger will have to tack so far to the right to secure the nomination that he or she may have no chance of capturing the centre ground.

Such electoral dynamics are deeply uninspiring for anyone who wants the world's most powerful democracy to function well.

The animosity between the two parties threatens to thwart efforts to address structural weaknesses in the economy and address the deeper social challenges facing this increasingly diverse society.

Another Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, recently wrote in Vanity Fair: "The upper 1% of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation's income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1% control 40 percent...

"While the top 1% have seen their incomes rise 18% over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall."

There is a hunger for leadership in the United States but a recent poll found more than seven out of 10 Americans would use the words "stupid" and "disgusting" to describe the budget stand-off.

Mr Obama, who is intimately familiar with the company of both millionaires and families in Chicago's housing projects, may want to be build a more equal America but he is locked in a political system fuelled by campaign contributions. The top-price tickets at his birthday fund-raiser in Chicago were $35,800.

When Mr Obama looks at the 50 candles blazing on his cake tonight, he must worry that his greatest achievement will have been winning the presidency, not what he achieved with the office.

If he leaves the White House for the last time and looks out on an American in which growing numbers of families struggle to pay the bills while fearing that they will lose their jobs and their homes he cannot conclude that his time in power has been anything other than a disappointment.

He must now assert his leadership and use the power of the presidency to project a vision for others to follow.

This is something Mr Clinton learned to do with aplomb in his second term after a series of early humiliations.

Crucially, he transformed apparent successes by the Republicans into public opinion disasters.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich had the crusading zeal of a Tea Party revolutionary but after he forced a shutdown of the federal government voters swung behind the president as the most reasonable of the two men.

Mr Obama, a skilled basketball player, will hope to outmanoeuvre his opponents with similar panache. But regardless of what political storms await this scholar-president, he is unlikely to be personally ruffled by the dramas ahead, or by turning 50.

He told National Public Radio: "You know, I feel real good about 5-0... Obviously I've gotten a little greyer since I took this job, but otherwise, I feel pretty good.

"And Michelle, you know, says that, you know, - she - sheshe still thinks I'm - I'm cute, you know, and I guess that's, that's all that matters isn't it?"


* From left, are Obama and wife Michelle at his swearing-in; with David Cameron during a barbecue at 10 Downing Street; with daughters Sasha, left, and Malia * Barack Obama delivers a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House Tuesday after the Senate's passing of the debt ceiling agreement
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 4, 2011
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