INDIANAPOLIS — Congress is . . . embarrassing. Our political system is failing us.
On an individual basis, many of us have respect for members of our delegation. We can have a common sense conversation with a senator, congressman or woman, and then they go back to Washington . . . and virtually nothing happens.
There have been several polls published this past week and in every one of them, Americans are telling us that they are “fed up,” as NBC News and the Wall Street Journal reported. Only 14 percent approve of the job Congress is doing and just 40 percent approve of President Obama’s performance. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, for the first time in 25 years, a majority of Americans at 51 percent disapprove of the way their own member of Congress is “handling his or her job.”
A CBS News poll shows that favorability of both the Democratic and Republican parties is just “one percentage point higher than the parties’ all time lows,” according to Politico, which reported that 29 percent of Americans view the Republican Party favorably, compared to 28 percent in June 2008, the record low. Democrat favorability is at 41 percent, only 1 percentage point higher than the party’s lowest favorability rating, 40 percent in 1994.
And the most troubling data is that Americans are losing faith. “People in both parties seem to agree on this grim view: A key pillar of the American dream is crumbling,” NBC/WSJ reported. They reported that “a commanding majority of people, cutting across party lines, lacks confidence that the world will be a better place for their children. That economic anxiety also cuts across all income groups, regions of the country, and levels of education.”
“We’re in the summer of our discontent,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the NBC/WSJ survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “Americans are cranky, unhappy. It is with everything going on the world.”
So will Hoosiers turn out at the courthouse square with pitchforks and pikes? Or build a third party? Hart explains, “We’re unhappy, but we aren’t coalescing around an issue.”
It was just six years ago that Barack Obama appeared to be the inspirational leader who would go to Washington, change the culture and move the nation forward. But lockstep Republican opposition to just about everything he proposed created a culture of gridlock. And Obama did virtually nothing to build relationships in Congress in the way President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill once did. Obama has been cloistered and aloof. These two disappointing elements are compounding our problems while we miss great opportunities.
This combination is creating the kind of “malaise” that defined the one term of President Jimmy Carter just at the national plunged into a deep recession.
In our current predicament, the Great Recession of 2008-09 is casting a deep, deep shadow across the country. NBC/WSJ described it like this: A combined 71 percent say the recession personally impacted them “a lot” or “just some,” and 64 percent say it’s still having an effect on them; 40 percent say someone in their household lost a job in the past five years; 27 percent say they have more than $5,000 in student loan debt for either themselves or their children; 20 percent have more than $2,000 in credit card debt they are unable to pay off month to month; and 17 percent say they have a parent or a child over 21 years old living with them for financial or health reasons. The Urban Institute reports that 77 million adults (35 percent) have a debt in collection.
“People are continuing to tell us what ways [the Great Recession] is still impacting them today,” said GOP pollster McInturff. “Those stories are pretty grim.” Americans watch the stock markets reach historic highs and the 1 percent profit, while the per capita income of most Hoosiers has declined by more than 10 percent in the past decade.
I wrote columns in the winter of 2009 as Obama took office when it looked like the American auto industry was about to collapse. My message was that for the next year and a half, the president and every member of Congress needed to join forces and do everything they could possibly do to build a better economy, to create jobs, and spur personal income.
It didn’t happen.
After the Carter “malaise,” we were fortunate to have a Reagan, who had a vision and an ability to forge deals that revived the nation. His tax cuts of 1981 — with support from more than 70 House Democrats — showered existing technology with investments that produced waves of cell phones, fax machines and ignited the personal computer revolution.
This summer, we have immigrant children spilling across our borders illegally, and this week a potential worldwide ebola pandemic is percolating. But Congress fled Washington for its August recess with no immigration reform deal, and the word is that nothing will happen when it returns.
The only way to exact change is when heads roll, as happened in the U.S. Senate in 1980 and with the election of an engaged and inspirational leader like Reagan. An event like that changes Washington. It makes our country better.
Perhaps it’s time to go out to the shed and find that old, rusty pitchfork.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.