This is not what anyone would have prescribed for a world economy that is still struggling to find its feet: the shutdown of the government of the world’s largest economy. The United States federal government failing, in effect, to pass its budget has happened several times before. However, it has not happened since 1996 and, arguably, it has not happened in as ideologically charged a political atmosphere as today. The shutdown will not affect much of the US government machinery. On the ground, few Americans and even fewer international visitors will actually notice that a shutdown is in effect.
The symbolism of the shutdown, however, does signal that the social after-effects of the 2008-09 subprime crisis are still being felt. That crisis triggered the working class, small-town revolt that has found its voice in the Tea Party movement. This movement, in turn, has hamstrung the ability of the Republican Party leadership to play the role of a loyal opposition. In other words, protest and criticise the ruling party and sitting president, but do so within limits and in a manner that does not undermine the national interest. US President Barack Obama will benefit to some degree. The polls indicate that shutdowns are not popular with voters and it is possible this present crisis will help the Democrats capture both houses of Congress. Obama will be assured that his national healthcare system, dubbed ‘Obamacare’, will stay and become his legacy. But this may also mean a second presidency of little or no accomplishment in other areas.
The world should live with the fact that the sole superpower will remain inwardly focussed for a few more years. Civil wars will be allowed to continue. The US may teeter on sovereign debt default again in a few weeks time. Obama will remain a president without a foreign policy. America will wage a cultural war within itself. Washington will need a few more years to work out the populist poison that has infected its body politic since the subprime crisis. Until then, expect the US to seemingly act like an emerging economy or an isolationist nation: shutting down at home and shutting out the world.