It's an interesting time to be in the USA. The Dow Jones index has passed 17,000 for the first time, employment is back to pre-global financial crisis levels and growing at a rate not seen since the technology boom of the late 1990s, and American soldiers aren't dying in places most of their compatriots couldn't find on a map.

Yet Americans seem to be in a sour mood. The intertwined themes of discord at home and decline abroad dominate the media.

"We the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on Independence Day" was Salon.com's bleak holiday weekend assessment.

A new poll ranks Barack Obama as the worst President since World War II, and gun crime statistics suggest everyday life in the USA resembles the noisier parts of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Advertisement

It's reported that there have been 74 school shootings since the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012. Last weekend there were 60 shootings in Chicago alone, at least nine of them fatal. Yet far from giving the gun nuts pause for thought, the carnage seems to make them nuttier.

The believe-it-or-not story of the week concerned a restaurant in Rifle (sic), Colorado where the waitresses carry guns. According to their boss, it's because they love Jesus, not because they're dissatisfied with their tips. Georgia has just made it legal to take guns into bars, churches and parts of airports, while forbidding police to ask the gun-toters if they have permits for their weaponry.

Hollywood is busily pandering to this sense that the future ain't what it used to be - most of the new season's TV shows being promoted on billboards around New York are set in post-apocalyptic dystopias.

So what's going on here? The quick and easy answer is that it's all Obama's fault. He certainly hasn't been the great unifier he aspired to be, but with the chasm between left and right, it's hard to see how anyone could keep both sides happy. His problem is that he hasn't pleased either.

Obama presented himself as an agent of change and progressives and conservatives took him at his word. His centrist presidency has disillusioned those of his supporters who expected radicalism but instead got America Inc with a fresh face, while no amount of business-as-usual was going to derail the conservative narrative. When the Republican Party's white male base looks at Obama, they don't see a moderate, they see the personification of the great demographic shift that threatens to reduce them to a permanent minority.

Analysts say the deteriorating situation in Iraq is pushing down his approval rating. His critics, some of whom created the mess in the first place, are demanding that he "act decisively," the old euphemism for putting other people's lives at risk.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, historians wondered how the lessons of Vietnam could have been forgotten so quickly. It used to take three decades for a costly and counter-productive foreign intervention to fade from the memory; now, it seems, we're down to one.

But a week in the US is a reminder that there's perception and there's reality, and the gap between the two is probably wider there than anywhere. The media shapes perceptions and it's in the nature of the beast to accentuate the negative and engage in premature extrapolation.

It would be easy to extrapolate on the theme of American obesity from the gigantic specimens I sat next to at the Broadway show The Book of Mormon. While they were certainly two of the larger mammals I've encountered on dry land, they were the exception rather than the rule.

When you're bouncing around in the back of a yellow cab hurtling through mid-town Manhattan, you tend to think the economists who bemoan America's neglect of its infrastructure have a point.

But clearly the average Jose prefers to spend his hard-earned - and he does work hard - on shiny new cars built to convey even the largest mammals rather than give it to the Government to spend on roading.

No matter how many times you've experienced it, it's impossible not to be overwhelmed by New York's scale, ambition, and energy, impressed by the way America opens its arms to the world and reminded of how deeply Americana is embedded in our culture and consciousness.

And it can make you feel slightly embarrassed. I awoke on Independence Day, when America celebrates its rejection of privilege based on birth among other things, to discover that back home a young offender's prospects of becoming Maori King are considered relevant to his treatment under the law.