If there is a crisis of confidence in America today, it's not because people have given up on themselves.
DEAR PRESIDENT Obama and Governor Romney:
It’s hard to believe that only four years ago, America was in economic meltdown and on the brink of another Great Depression.
The banks had stopped lending money; companies were handing out pink slips by the thousands and people who thought they’d achieved the American dream watched helplessly as the value of their homes sank below the amount of their mortgages.
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Economists were loath to call the following couple of years a depression, but as a reporter who spent much of that time writing about the anxieties and hopes of people affected by the crisis, it certainly seemed to me as if the nation had lost its way.
We might not have gone through a depression in the economic sense, but on a psychic level, America had the blues.
And we’re not over it.
Who can blame us? Mortgages weren’t the only things turned upside down. Our ideas about upward mobility and the American dream have been upended, too.
When you ask people whether they believe their children will do better than they have, they’re likely to respond with sighs or laughter.
People are at their wit’s end when it comes to politics, too.
The recession may be officially behind us, despite an unemployment rate above 8 percent and record numbers of people on food stamps, but the political fallout from the downturn has left the nation’s leaders, you included, stuck in a morass of bickering and finger-pointing. A bubbling cynicism, always there but usually held at bay, has left people from the Occupy movement on the left to the tea party movement on the right to independents straddling the middle feeling disillusioned.
Two polls this summer by USA Today suggest that Americans don’t trust either of you on the economy, in particular. When asked whether they were better off today than four years ago, 55 percent said no. Nearly three-quarters of those polled said they were dissatisfied with the direction of the country.
Congress’ approval rating is in the tank, too. And up to 90 million registered voters don’t even plan to vote in November’s general election. Many say they won’t vote because they’re fed up with the tone of the political campaigns.
There’s not a huge gap between your soaring rhetoric on the campaign trail and what people fret and dream about in their own homes. But, somehow, it feels as if there’s a disconnect between you and us.
If there is a crisis of confidence in America today, it’s not because people have given up on themselves. Going back to speak with people I’ve interviewed for previous stories about the economy and the nation’s course, I’ve found instead that people aren’t so sure about the two of you.
MR. PRESIDENT, you flew to Seattle in July to attend a $35,800-per-person business round-table discussion and a $5,000-a-plate dinner at the very large home of Costco CEO Jim Sinegal.
If you had visited the lovely but less-grand bungalow of Woody West and Maxi Lohrengel-West in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood as well, you wouldn’t have raked in so much cash but you no doubt would have received something just as valuable: An unfiltered earful from two everyday people about the state of the nation.
I first wrote about this couple three years ago in a story about how people were reclaiming the dinner hour as a time for conversation, connection and reflection in the wake of the Great Recession.
They consider themselves Obama supporters.
Maxi, an emergency-room worker, is German-born, so she views the political scene in the United States from the perspective of a European. Woody was raised in Michigan around the same time that your late father was the governor in that state, Gov. Romney.
Woody and Maxi follow your campaigns closely, and your names come up from time to time at the hours-long dinner parties they host for friends and neighbors, events that take on the quality of salons with their heady discussions about politics, literature, philosophy, food and travel.
But lately these die-hard liberals have been turned off by the bitter tone and narrowness of the debate, on both sides.
“It’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs,” complains Woody, a humanities teacher at Bellevue College. “There’s not enough about what constitutes a good life.”
Maxi agrees: “It doesn’t mean anything. People can have three jobs and still not be able to make a living.”
“Everybody talks about the middle class as if it’s the only class,” Woody says. What about the poor and people who are middle-income on paper but fear they’ve slipped into poverty because of financial strains?
Woody also believes that the two major parties have set up an “artificial polarity” that pits Democrats and Republicans against each other on the issues, even on trivial matters.
“It would be nice to talk about what’s really important,” Maxi adds. “I don’t give a damn about Obama’s birth certificate or Romney’s tax returns. If Romney has elevators for his cars, I don’t care.”
They both lament the lack of an “atmosphere of respect and cultural understanding,” as Maxi puts it, in the nation’s political discourse. They’d like you two to help restore civility.
At Bellevue College, Woody encounters students who are everything from working-class to affluent. But one thing is common among them.
“The young people I teach are sort of passive” about being involved in politics, he says. “It’s a divine sort of passivity that says, ‘Why try?’ “
Woody himself hasn’t given in to the impulse to throw his hands up, and he doesn’t want to turn his back on you, Mr. President.
“I’m giving him more time,” he says. “But we’ve seen that it might not be Obama, but a system that’s in place that doesn’t change very much.”
IT DOESN’T take a lot of effort to figure out that Americans are sick and tired of the way politics is played in this country.
“We know that they’ll say whatever they need to say to get elected,” Woody West says, but “we allow them to say those things.”
For a large segment of the population, this may be true.
But I’ve also come across people like Keli Carender, an improv comedian and political conservative in liberal Seattle who was never interested in activism until you won the 2008 election, Mr. President.
Carender held the nation’s first “tea party” demonstration in Seattle in 2009 to protest the economic-stimulus package you signed early that year.
Carender now works as the national grass-roots coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, traveling nationwide to help local activists organize in their communities. She has no weekends off and works from early morning until midnight on weekdays to make sure you’re a one-term chief executive.
“It completely freaks me out, the idea of four more years of his world view,” Carender says by phone between out-of-town organizing trips.
Carender hopes you don’t take her remarks personally, Mr. President.
“It’s not about him — he could be anybody,” she says. “It’s about his ideas.”
She insists that not only conservatives want a change at the top, and recalls a recent conversation with a liberal friend who also worries that the country is about to go over a financial cliff if the nation’s budget crisis isn’t resolved and federal social programs aren’t reformed.
“There are a lot of people who believed in the hope-and-change message and now they see something different,” Carender says. “They will want something new,” too.
Just talking about the health-care-reform law makes Carender’s blood boil.
To protest the law, some provisions of which don’t take effect until 2014, she plans to drop her own health care coverage and pay any government fines as a result. She’s even willing to go to jail to drive home her opposition.
“There are millions of us who will not comply with the health care legislation,” she says bluntly. “There’s gonna be civil disobedience, and (Obama) should be aware of it.”
Carender, now 32 and married, has grown up politically through the tea party movement, but the movement itself has evolved from the rowdy street protests and angry town-hall meetings that got so much attention two years ago.
A lot of people aren’t on the streets anymore, Carender says. “They’re behind the scenes doing all of the tedious work that doesn’t get reported on,” like licking envelopes, answering emails and poring over local ordinances in an effort to get more conservatives into positions of power.
But Carender, aligned with conservative and libertarian causes, voices only guarded support for you, Gov. Romney.
“I don’t know if I’m a supporter of Mitt Romney’s, but I’m just for looking for the person who can defeat Obama,” she says. “We just need principled people who aren’t afraid to make decisions.”
“With Romney,” she says, “at least there’s a glimmer of a chance things will change … But just because he’s a Republican, that doesn’t matter anymore. We’re going to hold you to all of your promises.”
“To both candidates, I would say we’re not going to let either of you get away with cronyism anymore,” Carender warns. “The American people are done with you giving your friends all of our money. We’re watching you guys now.”
ALL OF YOUR campaign talk about America’s boundless spirit and optimism sounds cliché until you sit for a while with someone like Marcy Maki, an early-childhood-education administrator who spent nearly two years jobless until finally getting back on her feet in late 2010. After appearing in two stories about her plight, she finally landed two jobs in the space of a year.
This summer, however, she lost the most recent job due to management disagreements with her employer. Maki went back on the jobless rolls.
The first 22-month stint of unemployment wiped her out. She has no savings. Her private retirement account is gone.
In July, she and her 27-year-old son, Drew, had to move out of her small rental home overlooking Lake Washington into a more modest house by railroad tracks in downtown Renton.
But you don’t need to worry much about Maki, Mr. President. She is your 2008 “HOPE” slogan personified.
She has survived the past four years by relying on friends from church, the gym and her Toastmasters group, as well as her son and her own seemingly indomitable will to succeed.
Despite her unemployment, or the fact that her son had to quit college this summer because they didn’t have enough money, she says things so optimistic that tears well up in her eyes.
She wants to do for herself, not rely on others or the government to eek out an existence.
“I’m sure that better days are ahead,” she says with a stiff upper lip. “I don’t think it’ll take 22 months this time … I’m more tenacious than I was.”
Maki is 56, just a decade away from retirement age, but she has almost given up on the idea of actually retiring then.
She knows she can’t live on Social Security benefits alone.
Maki was washing clothes at a laundromat before church one recent Sunday and the setting made her think about how far she’s risen in life and how far she’s fallen. She started her career doing low-skilled jobs in her home state of Montana, but eventually earned a college degree and made enough money from work to afford her own washer and dryer.
“It puts you in touch with where you come from — and where you really don’t want to stay!” she says in a joking tone that conceals a world of worry.
You walk away from Maki thinking she’ll make it, no matter what.
A “rabid Democrat” who was planning to volunteer at a local party office this campaign season, she does worry about you, Mr. President.
“He’s done very well for our country through some very hard times,” she says.
But “I think our president has an uphill battle” even if he wins, considering the passion of his opposition.
Sitting in the comfort of her backyard, she shared some advice to pass along to you, too, Gov. Romney: “Please surround yourself with advisers who know what the real world is about.
“I don’t think he understands the struggles of many people who have been middle class and who are now hanging on by a spider’s thread.”
Maki sets aside her “little sense of shame” over being out of work again to network and practice her speaking skills at her weekly Toastmasters meetings.
“I think there’s a pride issue where people don’t want to tell friends, family or co-workers, ‘I’m struggling,’ ” she says.
It’s hard to stay motivated and engaged sometimes, even for her.
THE LOWERING skies over Main Street appear to be brightening for some.
Millicent Blocquer, administrator of WorkSource in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, sees the same sort of optimism Maki radiates among the job-seekers who frequent her branch.
“Some of the stress levels have diminished,” Blocquer says. “In the attitudes of people coming in, you don’t see that same level of despondency that you saw before … People are feeling like there’s hope and a sense that there’s going to be change.”
More important: “People are going to work,” Blocquer says.
For many, job-search assistance, skills training and continuing education, though time-consuming and sometimes expensive, eventually pay off.
We Americans may be cranky and demanding, but we’re a decent and “tenacious” bunch, to use Maki’s word.
Despite the economic downturn and the bitterness of our national discourse, everyday people somehow have held onto their faith in America’s potential and their own.
The big unknown, though, is whether Americans can push aside their hardened cynicism about power and the political process and believe, without hesitation, in you.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer.