The British may not be natural optimists, but those planning vacations to the U.S. were able to see the bright side of the congressional debacle. “Dollar Pounded After U.S. Shutdown” screamed the Press Association, as David Swann, a currency trader explained the good news: “Britons will be getting their best U.S. dollar rates since January,” he said.
Prime Minister David Cameron took a more somber approach, claiming that the meltdown on Capitol Hill was a warning for Britain to keep a tight grip on the deficit. “It is a reminder to all of us that we that we need to have properly planned public expenditure systems, properly planned tax, properly planned arrangements for getting our deficit down,” he said at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester.
In an op-ed, a Daily Telegraph writer concluded that everybody should just calm down. The “reaction to shutdowns is overdone,” wrote Michael Goldfarb. The Guardian was more damning: “The last 48 hours were as bizarre as they were unpredictable.”
In an editorial article The Times of London said there was enough blame for both sides of Washington’s political divide. “For America’s allies, it is scarcely explicable how the leading democratic nation has come to this pass,” the paper said. “Obama has failed to defuse Republican opposition or devise a long-term plan.”
In a land of caudillos and charismatic populists, the image of a national leader brought to his knees by rebel lawmakers does not scan well. Especially when the leader in question is that Inca of Incas, the president of the United States. So it was with more than a little puzzlement, and not a little derision, that Latin Americans took in the government shutdown in Washington early this week.
“For most people here, presidents can do whatever they please, with or without support. So it’s hard to fathom how Obama, purportedly the most powerful man on the planet, could have been left so paralyzed,” says Bolivian economist Roberto Laserna.
Respected Brazilian editorial writer Clovis Rossi spoke for many Latin Americans when he picked up on the Beltway meme in his column in the Folha de São Paulo: “Washington has become Absurdistan.”
Like a cultural anthropologist, Jaime Aparício Otero, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the U.S. and now a Washington resident, has spent hours on the phone trying to explain America’s exotic political culture to his fellow Latin Americans. “There is this sense that the shutdown is a symptom of a larger national decline. Talking to people you get the sense that the U.S. is no longer considered the most serious country in the world, that an extreme right wing group is running things, and that this is what you get in a capitalist system. Right or wrong, that’s the perception.”
The French press is focused on domestic issues. (The big debate right now, raising all kinds of questions for a Socialist government addicted to political correctness, is when and whether and how to deport thousands of Roma.)
The coverage of the shutdown—actually, it’s called “le shutdown”; the word is now suddenly but firmly embedded in the French journalistic lexicon—is essentially anecdotal so far, a little on the light side, and groping for a French angle, as if trying to explain the craziness of the American government in depth isn’t really worth the ink, even digitally.
Thus Le Monde features a story headlined “In New York the ‘shutdown’ takes the Statue of Liberty away from tourists.” The reporter, Stéphane Lauer, writes that visitors anxious to visit the monument, which was, after all a gift of France, found themselves confronted by signs telling them Lady Liberty was off limits because of the shutdown, “a term which, one has to admit, did not mean a great deal” to most of the foreigners assembled there. A French tourist on her honeymoon said “it’s crazy to close everything like that, from one day to the next ... We are leaving Sunday. I hope that it’s over between now and then.”
Les Echos, one of the leading business papers, tried dutifully to explain the ins and outs of the Obamacare-budget debacle, but it, too, featured a rundown of side effects culled from the wires that it thought French executives and financiers might find intriguing. The headline: “The unexpected consequences of the ‘shutdown’ on Wall Street, in Normandy, and ... on Mars.” The list includes reports that the Twitter IPO may have to be postponed since the SEC won’t be able to study the project adequately; U.S. unemployment statistics on October 4 may not be published, which could have an impact on the Fed’s decision-making; the investigations of the derivatives markets may be stopped; government Twitter sites will be frozen; the Curiosity probe on Mars will go on standby; and, this is somehow more tragic, the American military cemeteries in Europe, including the vast garden of stone above the Normandy beaches, will be closed to the public.
A mathematician friend of mine put this on his Facebook page and I think it’s thought-provoking at least for us in India:
Many in India, since I was a child, have asked why we can’t have a US-style presidential system rather than a parliamentary system. The US has just demonstrated one reason. Imagine a situation where the “President” (US-style) was from the Congress but the lower house was controlled by the BJP, who refused to pass the finance bill unless the Ram temple was built… It is, I think, a good idea for the head of government to have the confidence of the lower house. So far, the US system has worked because it is assumed that the party who controls the lower house won’t want to destroy the country’s (and perhaps the world’s) economy for their partisan purposes. That assumption is clearly no longer valid.
Italian papers this week all had the American shutdown on the front pages. La Repubblica’s Washington correspondents shared a byline with a story that began, “Washington is the heart and brain of the federal government that extends its nerve endings throughout the world. Yesterday, the 1st of October, the brain went into a coma. The heart is still beating slowly, just enough to survive.”
Corriere della Sera instead showed photos of all the attractions that are closed, saying there were 200 cars outside Mount Rushmore, citing the fact that the government said no even though the state of South Dakota offered to use state funds to keep it open. The paper also listed NASA and 97 percent of its employees at home, and Yosemite, closed for the celebration of its 123 birthday.
The focus here, however, was obviously on the confidence vote looming against Prime Minister Enrico Letta. (He survived.) There were comments that if the United States can’t keep its government together, what hope is there for the Italians?
—Barbie Latza Nadeau