How Americans feel about the American dream for their family may go a long way towards measuring the first 100 days of the Obama presidency.
As we pass the 100 day milestone of Barack Obama's first term, one question keeps running through my mind even as I sift through all the polls showing soaring approval ratings: When each of us awoke this morning, did we feel better about that nagging fear for our family's financial future than we felt 100 days ago?
"The American Dream," Arthur Miller once remarked, "is the largely unacknowledged screen in front of which all American writing plays itself out." The same can be said of American politics.
How each of us feels, lately, as we mull over our progress towards the American dream, is one of the best measures of Obama's job performance that I know, and it is one worth discussing at length instead of resting on the laurels of this or that poll of approval ratings.
President Obama is high in the polls and deservedly so. But at the same time, so many Americans share that recurrent, manic thought expressed by Willy Loman at the outset of Death of a Salesman, "I'm tired to the death." After 100 days of watching, celebrating--enjoying--this historic and symbolic presidency, the struggle against the economy has, nonetheless, left a large number of American families "tired to the death."
When the Dow Jones Index dipped below 6,500 in early March, a flood of fear overtook the dreams many Americans assumed would flourish from their healthy retirement accounts. Curiously, while the markets have all but returned to the levels they reached when Barack Obama was inaugurated, rather than feeling relieved, most Americans are now waist deep in the painful work of revising their retirement plans downward. The feeling is not one of recovery, but of accepting loss. It is difficult to see how these deflated dreams have been assuaged by President Obama. Despite his talk of American resilience and rebuilding a future, the a leitmotif from the Obama White House has been the importance of facing the reality of our current situation. For Americans facing retirement, that means facing the soft spots in their savings and living with the consequences of past decisions.
For another large chunk of the American public, their feelings on the American dream are tied up entirely in their lost or diminishing paycheck. For the first time in decades, just about everybody who has a job is worried about keeping it, with very few exceptions. And for the first time, most Americans in search of a new job will be forced to migrate to a new state, or stay jobless in their current home. Enterprising Americans have always picked up house and moved to find work, but the current climate demands it. Amidst this upheaval in the job market, President Obama has invested a tremendous amount of federal funds to make sure that communities hit hardest by unemployment do not fold up and die. Yet, with the exception of the so-called "shovel-ready" public works projects paid for by the Recovery Act, the systemic problem of unemployment has grown steadily worse. For working Americans everywhere, that means putting the American dream on hold to focus on family survival.
For young people just stepping up to thoughts of the American dream, the first 100 days began with an overwhelming hope that has begun to buckle under the combined weight of credit card debt, grim job prospects, and the cost of education that continues to skyrocket out of control. When Obama was first elected, high school seniors had just applied to college. By now, those same students have received their acceptance letters and are now mulling over the prospect of diving into short and long-term debt to fund their education. Many are revising their college plans to take into account the economic hardships of their parents. Motivated students who would had begun to think about summer jobs this time last year, have already discovered that most summer work will be absorbed by cash starved college students returning home for the summer to save money. The Obama administration has made a conscious effort to use the tax code to make college more affordable, expanded service opportunities for young people, and generally inspired college-aged Americans to believe they can make a difference in the future of their country. And yet, as April drags on into May, many of these young Americans are realizing for the first time that their plans for the immediate future might be financially untenable, and they are revising them downward accordingly.
All these differed and deflated American dreams have gathered into a dark cloud of gloom over at least a third of the American public. And as this sizable third feels its dreams slip away, some grow frustrated while others get angry. At best, these Americans are frustrated with the slow pace of the administration's economic policies. At worst, these people are tilting towards a broad scale frustration at what they see as a continuation of a political culture beholden to the financial industry.
What tempers this dark cloud of economic anxiety is another group of Americans who, despite their general financial concerns, look at the smoldering rubble of the collapsed economy and see an opportunity for their family to get ahead. These are the Americans ridiculed by friends and family members for not taking advantage of investment funds that guaranteed astounding rates of return. These are the Americans who chose the professional road less taken and who forsook the big bonus for public service. For a decade they watched others enjoying the quick high of getting and spending. It was never easy. For the past 6 months, they have watched as the dreams built on candy floss and fairy dust have been crushed by the reality of spiraling credit card debt and crises brought on by the double gallows adjustable rate mortgages and home equity lines. As the dust of economic collapse settles, prices drop, and their savings rise by comparison, these Americans have been able to move their American dream years ahead of schedule, sometimes even decades. Plans to purchase a home in five years are suddenly possible. Far off hopes to renovate are suddenly affordable. Means to grow the family in more space has finally landed with them. For these Americans, the tax incentives and emphasis on new regulations of the Obama administration, together with the federal investment package, have created a feeling of long overdue justice and breathing space. Working hard, playing by the rules--in addition to being responsible and realistic--finally has some short term rewards.
Feelings about the American dream and, subsequently, about President Obama's job performance, are balanced between these two groups. While there seem to be far more Americans with differed and deflated dreams these days, that may be a matter of perception. Even people whose finances have survived the downturn in tact will have felt afraid over the past few months, and they will be far less likely to talk about the opportunity they see than those lamenting the pain they feel. Such is human nature. But the balance of feeling is out there, and despite President Obama's 65 to 70 percent approval ratings, these numbers probably mask a fair number of people who are glad he is president, but very anxious or excited about their own lives.
The final third to the country are those die hard Republicans who would sooner swallow a live snake than see something positive in a Democratic President. They are that vocal third who stuck with George W. Bush to the end, who saw him as a brilliant leader was wronged by the media, and who cheered the loudest when Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of cavorting with terrorists. They, too, have been hit by the economy, but they look at the Obama presidency and can see nothing but profligate spending, even when federal investments directly help their states, their communities, and their families avoid immediate disaster. Their feelings about the American dream are inversely proportional to what they were when the a Republican lived in the White House.
When we stack up all these collective feelings into a collective feeling in the country, the outcome is much different than the high approval ratings the President is enjoying.
More likely than not, about two thirds of the country will pass by Obama's 100 day milestone with considerable anxiety about their futures, even if they feel the country is generally headed in the right of the direction.
While nobody can blame the Obama White House if they step back for a moment and remind the public of some of their achievements since taking office, the President and his staff would be wise to take seriously the collective impact of an America that has felt its dreams slip away since he took office--not because he took office, but, nonetheless, since he took office.
What will happen if the President does not take these feelings of anxiety into account? Hard to say at this point.
If the Obama administration can find a way to light a fire under Tim Geithner and finally tackle the problem of the banks, that would free their hands to spend more time addressing the human problems people face in their everyday lives. That need need not mean more federal spending, but more time focusing people on ways to pick up the pieces of their shattered financial lives and rebuild their American dream.
If the President can do that, the outpouring of positive feeling from the nation he gets when he reaches the end of his first year in office will rival those felt by so many Americans back in January after his first hour on the job.