Those chaotic town-hall meetings make for dramatic TV reports, but they don't say much about the mood of the country. Most Americans are not angry.
We're worried. While polls can't quite capture it, the dog days of August have drained many of us of enthusiasm for "change," energy for civic activism and even hope for the future.
Obama spent much of the past fall and early winter reminding constituents that the economy had fallen into a savage recession "years in the making," and even enacting his policies wouldn't create instant nirvana. Polls taken at the time suggested that Americans were aware that the "Great Recession" was the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and wouldn't be cured quickly.
But intellectual understanding -- conveyed in the answers we give pollsters -- and emotional, gut-level awareness are two different things. Now that the official unemployment numbers are trending toward 10 percent, foreclosures are continuing apace and credit is still very tight, patience is wearing thin.
Those of us who still have jobs, and the vast majority of us do, know someone who was laid off, bought out or eased into early retirement. We're cutting back, saving those tax cuts instead of going to the mall. And we're just a little irritated by those economists who insist that the recession is probably over. Jobs, we're told, are "lagging indicators." Your banker isn't interested in a lagging mortgage payment.
Many of the conservative town-hall protestors -- those who sympathize with the man who held up the "Obamadinejad" sign comparing Obama to the president of Iran -- are angry about cultural changes that have remade the country in a relatively short period of time. They represent a graying minority who wouldn't be happy if Obama could grow money trees and hand everybody $200,000 checks.
But most of us are anxious about another sort of cultural change that hasn't gotten nearly as much attention: a decline that suggests the economy of the future will not yield the broad prosperity we've come to expect, even when jobs return. A new normal that will not allow each generation to grow more affluent than the last. The rise of competing powers such as China and India and even Brazil, which portends an America struggling for good-paying jobs.
Obama is aware of the changes on the horizon. That's why he's spoken of creating whole new industries -- "green" jobs in alternative energy and climate-change-related sectors yet untapped. He has talked about ending the "boom-and-bust" cycles of the last several decades, most recently demonstrated by the housing bubble and the deafening pop that followed.
But my own despair lies in my uneasy feeling that, as a nation, we're not capable of preparing for a future that will be dramatically different from what we've known. If we can't agree to adopt health care reform -- though almost every American adult knows the system we have isn't working -- how can we possibly agree on the changes required for a future we can hardly envision?
The Chinese, it seems, have passed a huge stimulus package that is working quite well. The authoritarian state, still officially Communist, doesn't have to contend with competing political parties or listen to irate citizens or pretend to care about polls. They decide on a policy. They enact same. Done.
Democracy is a vastly superior system, of course, but our particular brand of democracy is a bit dysfunctional at the moment. The opposition party is committed only to the failure of the president, even if that means the country fails, too. And the majority party is still beholden to lobbyists, special interests and money, despite Obama's promises to clean up Washington. (The Blue Dog Democrats, as just one example, sold out to UnitedHealth Group, which doesn't want a public insurance option.)
Perhaps September, when Congress returns, will present a brighter picture of hardworking representives honestly wrestling with the tough issues and trying to come up with solutions. I can dream, can't I?
(Cynthia Tucker can be reached at [email protected])
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