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The Straits Times says

America's unhealthy state of politics

In popular idiom, the leader of the strongest nation, the United States, is considered the most powerful man on earth. But Forbes magazine has ranked Russian President Vladimir Putin the most powerful for four years running because "he continues to get what he wants". President Donald Trump, who is No. 2, must be seeing the logic of the ranking by now - after his healthcare agenda was thwarted in the legislature and legal challenges arose to his plans to stop Muslims from certain nations from entering the US.

Mr Trump had made the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, nicknamed Obamacare, a centrepiece of his appeal to a divided electorate during his campaign. He did this in spite of the fact that Obamacare sought to give 20 million Americans access to affordable and quality health insurance while checking the growth in healthcare spending. Although the translation of the Act's lofty goals into practice on the ground was difficult, former president Barack Obama's mission was to redress the implications of a series of dismal statistics. These included the harrowing revelation that more than 60 per cent of bankruptcies in the US are medical-related and most bankrupts do have some form of insurance.

Obamacare was meant to tilt the economic balance in favour of ordinary Americans' access to the basic need for health. Trumpcare, by contrast, would have slashed public assistance to those who have no healthcare cover through their employer. The US Congressional Budget Office estimated that by 2026, 24 million more Americans would be uninsured than they would have been under Obamacare. Not surprisingly, healthcare is a politically charged issue in the US.

Ironically, Trumpcare has been torpedoed by conservative groupings that blamed his plans for not going far enough to repeal Obamacare. The groups include the House Freedom Caucus, Club for Growth and Heritage Action. Mr Trump could have expected Democrats to block his plans, but what put paid to them was the opposition within conservative ranks from factions that are distant from him, as he is from the political mainstream.

The failure of Trumpcare makes a salutary point about how the legislative process must deliver outcomes that benefit people as a whole and not just create a political mess that undermines public trust in important institutions. America deserves to be called more powerful than others because its checks and balances help to advance the public good far better than in Mr Putin's universe where means and ends depend on just one man. But good leadership is needed to make the American system work. The president must inspire people to strive for worthwhile goals and mobilise lawmakers and influence brokers to work together to safeguard the welfare of all Americans. Then, he would truly merit the tag of the most powerful.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2017, with the headline 'America's unhealthy state of politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe