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Foreigners Wonder What’s Happened to America

Australians, others fret about America’s broken political system.

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People in Australia feel there is great political dysfunction in the United States.

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SYDNEY–Perceptions of political dysfunction in the United States have spread far outside America's borders, to such an extent that many admirers of America are openly worried about what's happening to the USA.

This is the strong impression I got from spending the past week in Australia, partly for a tour to promote my latest book, "Prisoners of the White House." I had the occasion to talk with many Australians and traveling citizens of Great Britain, Canada, Japan and the United States. It's remarkable how many people with no ax to grind are embarrassed for America because of the ongoing stalemate, partisanship and pettiness in Washington.

It's mostly a sense of sadness that a once-great political system has gone so badly off track. And the perception of dysfunction is particularly striking in Australia, where memories of America's heroic role in World War II remain vivid and where the bonds of affection with "the Yanks" remain strong. Some of the major battles of the Pacific war took place not very far from here, such as the bloody fight for Guadalcanal and other island strongholds. Many local residents marked the occasion this month when the Japanese bombed Darwin in northern Australia 70 years ago. Ties to the United States remain powerful.

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This history makes the current questioning of America's direction even more poignant. On foreign affairs, people wondered if President Barack Obama has been outmaneuvered by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, especially in Syria, where a civil war rages and Putin has managed to keep the regime that is allied with Russia in power. A businessman from Australia said he admires the United States but is worried that China is on the march economically and America won't be able to compete effectively. This concern was widely shared.

Time and again I was asked what's gone wrong in Washington, and what's become of American pragmatism, ingenuity, and common sense. Traveling Americans shared the angst. A businessman from Hawaii, where Obama spent much of his adolescence, said the president seems to lack basic management skills and this executive complained that Republicans in Congress show little willingness to compromise. The businessman, who frequently travels around the Pacific Rim, added that many of his colleagues in the corporate world are very frustrated by the overall dysfunction in the capital. An entrepreneur from California complained that people in Washington are always talking past each other, and not talking to each other. She added that the liberals and the conservatives are in their own worlds and have failed to build bridges to one another. Another businessman from California said Obama will bankrupt the country if the government's big-spending habits don't change.

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I told these folks that it's up to the American people to tell the politicians what to do and in which direction to go. The pols simply can't or won't reach consensus on their own. In short, what the United States needs is a clarifying election.

But chances are it won't come soon. The major political parties are hunkering down with their core constituencies, expecting a low turnout in this November's midterm elections and trying to motivate, above all, their most partisan voters rather than appeal to the larger electorate. The clarifying election probably won't happen until 2016, when we choose the next president.