Politics & Policy

A 2016 Candidate Needs to Get Us Out of Our National Funk

Help wanted: A potential president who can get Americans to feel confident again.

It is hard to overstate the pessimism of the American people right now.

The last time as many Americans said the country was on the “right track” as said we were headed in “the wrong direction” – never mind having a positive balance — was June 2009. There have been particularly bad moments in recent years, such as the summer-2011 debt-ceiling fight and the fall-2013 government shutdown, but for most of the past six years, the numbers have been depressingly stable. Twenty-some to 30 percent of Americans feel like things are on the right track; 60-some to 70 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Mark Penn and Donald Baer, analyzing an online survey of 2,000 Americans, conducted in late May:

The poll is a jarring wake-up call to anyone who still believes America is a country of optimists. Nearly two-thirds of Americans—65 percent—question whether America will be on the right track in 10 years. They are also split on whether the country will be a “land of opportunity” (33 percent say yes, 42 percent say no, and 24 percent say they don’t know). In their view, the American Dream itself seems to be fading. Seven in 10 Americans have real doubts about whether working hard and playing by the rules will bring success in the future. They are also concerned about their children’s futures. Despite falling unemployment in many states, 64 percent of parents believe it will be difficult for their children to find good jobs in 10 years.

Notably, two groups that are less likely to subscribe to this gloomy forecast are African Americans and Hispanics; they tend to believe America is on the right track and will remain a land of opportunity. Women, however, tend to be more pessimistic than men. They are less likely to believe they will be better off financially or heading towards a secure retirement in 10 years. They are also less likely to believe their children will be better off in 10 years or that they’ll be able to afford their children’s college education.

This isn’t entirely the fault of President Barack Obama, but the results of his presidency undoubtedly contribute to the intensely pessimistic mood. While Obama still has a bit more than two more years left in his term, more than half of all Americans are ready to give him a failing grade:

A clear majority of Americans describe President Obama’s tenure as a “failure” according to a new poll released Monday.

The survey from IBD/TIPP indicates that 53 percent of adults in the United States now characterize Obama’s presidency as a “failure,” while 41 percent chalk it up as a success. Half of the people who live in states won by Obama see his tenure negatively, as do 59 percent of those aged 25-44 years old.

One of the biggest obstacles to the GOP’s enjoying a midterm election victory is Republicans’ fears that controlling the Senate won’t make much difference. A president who has already rewritten parts of Obamacare, bombed several countries on dubious legal grounds, made recess appointments when Congress was in session, threatened amnesty by fiat, and is discussing violating a congressional bar to closing Guantanamo Bay may not be all that deterred by the shift of a few Senate seats.

The president who once declared “cynicism” to be his “real rival,” is leaving a more cynical electorate in his wake. In 2007 and 2008, Obama made a slew of relatively non-partisan government accountability promises — to reduce the number of campaign donors nominated to plum ambassadorial posts, not to hire lobbyists in policymaking positions, to disclose all meetings with staff and lobbyists, and to give the American public five days to opportunity to review and comment on potential legislation on the White House website before signing bills into law. Obama broke those promises, and the public now has good reason to doubt that any future president would keep them.

Since January 2011, the overall tone and style of American governance has been a Democratic president alternatingly blaming and ignoring a Republican Congress, periodically insisting he has nothing to do with mind-blowingly appalling scandals involving  the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Health and Human Services, the National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. State Department, the intelligence community, the Centers for Disease Control, and the U.S. Secret Service.

Should Americans feel better about 2016? The Democrats appear likely to nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been one of the most powerful individuals in Washington since 1993, and who had a hand in all of this administration’s foreign-policy decisions in the first term. It will be fascinating to watch the attempted populist tone coming from a woman who is the walking embodiment of America’s governing class, with her $250,000 speeches, Wall Street friends, and practically every group in America currying favor.

But there are reasons for the public to doubt how much a Republican president would change Washington. If elected, former Florida governor Jeb Bush would be the third member of the Bush family to be president in 24 years, and continue the GOP’s recent tradition of nominating sons of past elites –the other son of a president, the son of an admiral, and then the son of a governor. The last era of all-Republican government, from 2002 to 2006, left many conservatives and not-so-conservatives deeply disappointed, with a still-expanding government, embarrassing scandals, and the seeds planted for the housing bubble to burst.

Perhaps the non-Republican corners of America feel so glum today because they believed so strongly in the narrative that this president would be a conquering hero — a narrative cheerfully embraced by the news and entertainment media with a near-religious fervor in 2008:

If the adoration of Obama in 2007 and 2008 stand as a cautionary tale, then perhaps the current moment of cynicism represents the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. America may not need a “Lightworker,” as a New Age columnist deemed Obama in 2008, but it needs a potential president it can trust and count on. Somebody who says what he means and means what he says. Someone who’s respectful of those who disagree but forthright and direct about what he (or she!) believes and intends to do in office. Someone who has a solid track record of making promises and keeping them, even when it isn’t convenient.

Americans are looking for someone to believe in.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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