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Using the word "dysfunctional" to describe U.S. politics and government has become a cliché. It suffers, as clichés do, from overuse and misuse.

But after Tuesday's midterm elections, the U.S. federal government is stuck in gridlock even more intractable than it was before. The Republicans gained; Barack Obama lost; the whole country suffers.

Yes, the party of an incumbent president midway through his second term usually loses ground. But so deflated is Mr. Obama's reputation that some Democrats in close races contorted themselves to shed any connection to the President.

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Six years on, Americans are long removed from the "Yes We Can" days of Mr. Obama's first successful run for the presidency. He seemed so fresh, so smart, so different then – and not just because of his race. He was a big change from the ideologues of George W. Bush's era, who had delivered the country large fiscal deficits and debilitating foreign wars.

Mr. Bush's record was generally viewed as somewhere between disastrous and incompetent (except by hard-line Republicans). Abroad, his administrations drove America's reputation to record lows, including in Canada.

Repairing that damage was going to be a tall order for any successor. To make matters worse, Mr. Obama was greeted by a devastating financial recession. Another burden came from the Republican Party, which was determined not to accept defeat gracefully but to begin, from Day 1, a guerrilla war of opposition in Congress and the country's clangorous right-wing media.

That campaign has never abated; indeed, it intensified. Republicans became even more strident with the ascendancy of the Tea Party insurgents and new voices such as those of senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Republican moderates have been banished from the party's elected ranks, either by retirement attrition or by more ideological challengers. Congressional Republicans who would have seemed quite conservative a decade or so ago became the party's new "moderates," which is not what they are at all, except by contrast to their fire-breathing colleagues.

The widening ideological gap between the Democrats and these new Republicans has been widely noted. So, too, has the systematic gerrymandering of congressional districts, which makes success easier for candidates appealing to narrower parts of the electorate. And nothing in the world, not even in the worst nightmares of anyone who cares about democracy, can equal the frantic and ferocious quest for money that drives almost every candidate for elected office in the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court has contributed significantly to this cash grasping with two decisions (Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United), each ostensibly based on the First Amendment right to free speech, that have deformed politics, empowered lobbyists, created new opportunities for the super-rich and caused politicians, actual or would-be, to worry as much about money as policy, and often more.

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A political system designed to check centralized power increasingly checks itself everywhere, with little talking between the parties, the executive stymied by the legislature, lobbyists swarming around every issue, money-raising driving all before it, and the president, or at least this one, apparently unable to rise above the political muck to mobilize the people.

The Monday-morning quarterbacks (U.S. political discourse being saturated with sports metaphors) and later historians will dissect why Mr. Obama has been unable to lift the country, excellent orator as he is.

Maybe, but this is guesswork, nobody could do so with opinion so querulously divided on so many issues. While the rest of the democratic world has moved past these issues, Americans are still emotionally wrought up about abortion, guns and public health care.

A sense of being pressed internationally by a new challenger (China), an old adversary (Russia) and a whack-a-mole adversary in Salafist jihadi terrorism contributes to a frustration that the world order of spreading democracy led by the United States is not quite unfolding as it should.

The loss of control – of borders that get overwhelmed by children from Honduras or illegal immigrants from Mexico; of good-paying, working-class jobs that have gone offshore; of terrorists who threaten the homeland and the country's interests abroad – have created uncertainties that lead to political unhappiness.

And all this uncertainty, paradoxically, is afflicting a country with unparalleled creativity, immense intellectual drive, an entrenched work ethic, bountiful energy supplies, friendly neighbours – a country that more of the world than not still looks to for leadership.

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