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Page last updated at 09:57 GMT, Wednesday, 22 April 2009 10:57 UK

Washington diary: While I was away

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

I have just returned from a 10-day trip to Berlin, which turned out to be a timely reminder of how sane, uneventful and pleasant life in Europe can be despite the world's woes.

A Tea Party tax protester holds up a banner which reads "Barack Hussein Obama - The New Face of Hitler"
Some protesters carried messages not usually associated with tea drinking

The German economy has been hit hard by the economic crisis. Exports have plummeted. Growth has shrunk.

Youth unemployment, especially in the former East, is rising to alarming, Depression-era levels, and all this despite the fact that Germany had no housing bubble, no sub-prime excesses and a relatively healthy banking sector.

To my surprise, I found very few Germans blaming America. I did find the notoriously gloomy Teutons enjoying an early burst of summer sunshine and generally chilling out.

The worship of Barack Obama has simmered down to polite curiosity about how he is doing and reassurance that he is un-doing some of the Bush era policies from waterboarding to Guantanamo Bay.

Undiluted rage

And what happened here while I was gone?

It was revealed, amongst other things, that the CIA waterboarded a notorious al-Qaeda chief 183 times in one month.

He had already confessed to his role in 9/11 on al-Jazeera, but the Bush administration famously did not watch that channel.

Apart from the question of whether this kind of torture actually works - most experts on the subject seem to think it does not - and the dodgy legal justification, there is also the vexing question of timing.

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
More and more Republicans believe that President Obama [is] using the crisis... to reshape America, tamper with its free market fundamentals and turn it into a worker's paradise

How many waterboarding sessions can you fit in a day? At least six, on average, according to the publicised CIA memo.

While I was away, unhappy Republicans, who seemed to have found their voice of late, organised thousands of tax day tea parties to protest against Barack Obama's economic policies.

A few protests carried messages not usually associated with tea drinking. Or with tax protests, for that matter.

One poster complained that "American taxpayers are the Jews for Obama's ovens".

Another called "Barack Hussein Obama" the "new face of Hitler".

Add to that the news that gun sales have rocketed because gun owners fear - quite unrealistically - that Mr Obama may be restricting the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which protects the right to bear arms.

To sum up: a small number of Americans, who believe that Obama is the new Anti-Christ, are arming themselves to the teeth, fully expecting to have to defend their property from marauding gangs let loose by the recession and a grasping government.

Mercifully, this is a tiny minority, but what is worrying is the degree to which more and more Republicans are responding to just about anything that the Obama administration does with undiluted rage.

Ideological war

The party that lost the election is getting adept at channelling the middle-class anger that was unleashed by the economic crisis with some of the same tools perfected by the Obama campaign.

Last week's tea parties used Facebook and Twitter to get organised.

A few months ago, the same social networking tools were used by Mr Obama's army of 13 million e-mail foot soldiers to organise house parties for Change. Tea parties v house parties: let the battle begin.

The Republicans are beginning to respond to the Obama administration with the same hysterical opposition that the Democrats once reserved for President Bush.

Tea Party tax protestors hold up a banner with the word Obama on it, in which the letter 'O' has been replaced by a hammer and sickle
America's political tribes are poised for ideological battle

During the last administration, some on the left accused Mr Bush of using 9/11 as an opportunity to rearrange America's political furniture, wage wars abroad, expand executive powers at home and tamper with the fundamentals of the Constitution.

More and more Republicans believe that President Obama and his team are using the crisis triggered by 9/14 - the day that Lehman brothers collapsed - to re-shape America, tamper with its free market fundamentals and turn it into a worker's paradise.

I will leave it up to each reader to decide where they stand on this issue.

But the battle lines are drawn with all the irrational imprecision created by the fog of ideological war.

And like his predecessor, Barack Obama has engaged in a huge if calculated gamble.

Like it or not, the bailout and stimulus packages are his Weapons of Mass Destruction.

If they can be found, if the economy starts to grow again, then the ends will have been seen to justify the means.

Everything else - from healthcare, to the environment to education - depends on this fundamental roll of the dice.

The president has seized on the economic crisis to make a down payment on a whole array of other issues.

If the economy fails to expand, the rest could turn to ashes and America's children will grow up drowning in debt.

The stakes are high. Both tribes are poised for battle and America is stubbornly divided.

Get me back to Berlin!

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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