- - Tuesday, September 1, 2015


The State Department recently announced that a record number of Americans in 2014 gave up their citizenship and decided to live elsewhere. Last year’s figure of 3,415 was a 14 percent increase over the previous record, 2,999, in 2013. By contrast, only 742 renounced their citizenship in 2009, a handful figure in line with previous history. Although President Obama has a little more than a year to serve in office, his uncompromising policies and extralegal tactics may indelibly affect the United States for many years to come, moving one in three Americans, according to recent polls, to consider an exit strategy.

Although the State and Treasury Departments suggest that Americans who take the ultimate step do so to avoid high taxes on their wealth, a good case can be made that it’s what has happened to the quality of life in the nation in recent years that is critical. For it costs a lot of money (the exit fee has risen fivefold) and a bushel of red tape to effect renunciation — a characteristic in line with the enormous regulatory fever in the Obama administration.

In the old days, the safety-value for discontent and disillusionment was for Americans to move from one state to another rather than take to the streets to protest or leave the nation. Indeed, states competed for people as the nation rounded out its continental borders, often with economic and democratic incentives. Illinois offered more of these incentives than Indiana as it emerged first as a territory before petitioning for statehood; to the west Iowa outdid Illinois; and by the time the last territory, Arizona, requested statehood in 1912 its constitution was so democratic — providing for recall of judges, for instance — that President William Howard Taft stopped the process, until changes were made. Once Arizona became a state, however, it went back to its divergent ways

Because Mr. Obama’s legacy has been to regulate areas traditionally within the purview of states — from health insurance to voter identification requirements to even school lunch menus — the ability of Americans to move to different states has been sorely strained. Today, only about one of every 10 Americans picks up stakes each year, half the usual movement and lowest percentage since statistics have been compiled in the post-World War II period. Lack of jobs for young people, in particular, has kept them close to the parental home, and Obamacare has tightened the economic umbilical cord even tighter, what with the requirement that offspring under the age of 26 are really still children and can qualify for health insurance under their parents’ policies.

To be sure, most Americans have no desire to give up their citizenship. But increasing numbers are taking the softer side of expatriation, namely, living abroad while keeping their citizenship. Federal government statistics on the matter are sketchy, based upon IRS and Social Security records, but a conservative estimate is that seven million have taken the exit road. Americans abroad still pay U. S. taxes and health costs because insurance typically doesn’t carry overseas. But that’s not the major dilemma now. Rather, it’s that the choice to become an expat has been narrowed because Mr. Obama’s policies at home and abroad have resulted in foreign citizens having such a negative view of the United States that expats may not wish to venture from one inhospitable environment to another.

In the 1950s, foreign citizens used the term, “the ugly American,” to describe their sentiments, largely directed to brash, all-knowing government bureaucrats and even tourists. As one who studied in Europe during that decade, I was aware of the feelings, but the nation I represented at the time was also in the midst of a booming economy, a massive foreign aid program and, perhaps most of all, a widely heralded Dwight Eisenhower presidential administration best personified by the slogan, “I like Ike.” The United States, in sum, was the world’s leader (maybe still an ugly one) — but a role it would maintain until the Obama administration.

And that’s the rub. No administration since the Eisenhower years has been so shameful in terms of its tone, policies and record at home and abroad. The long-standing view of a president with limited constitutional powers has been replaced with a monarchical approach, with executive orders tantamount to kingly decrees. Cover-ups in foreign policy and outright corruption in the Internal Revenue Service and Veterans Administration suggest that what used to be America’s bully pulpit to lambaste governments abroad has come home to roost.

Although the big talk these days in Washington is about immigration policy, emigration is no less important. What was once an American leadership role in foreign crises has diminished to one of downright subservience to foes, not only in semantics, but in a lack of diplomatic and military force that has left the nation’s most trusted allies baffled and disappointed, scarcely an environment for American expats to find respect and solace.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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