(Centennial Fellow) What sets America apart from other countries is the extraordinary reservoir of idealism that has been a constant in our national life from the very beginning. The national narrative-a.k.a. The American Dream- has always been about individuals and groups who achieved remarkable things against great odds. Cynics for whom the glass is always half empty call the dream a myth but Americans know better for they have seen it fulfilled in their own lives or those of others for generations. Throughout our history the stories of Horatio Alger, Abraham Lincoln and countless others have reinforced our belief in the boundless potential of the common man and our deep conviction that such aspirations are no relic of the past but rather a living legacy for our children and grandchildren.
A parallel theme to this American idealism is a recurring naivete in our initial assessments of politicians who seek to be our leaders. Through endless elections we have seen the triumph of hope over experience in our susceptibility to slogans like “ ending business as usual or “eliminating waste in government” or “driving out the special interests”. We tend to believe that if ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things then it is quite reasonable to expect politicians to deliver on their promises. Accordingly new Presidents invariably enter office with high approval ratings and even higher expectations.
A corollary to these themes of idealism and naivete is that when the politicians fail to deliver results or worse do things that contradict their promises we commonly feel disappointment, even anger, a sense of betrayal, and a righteous determination to punish those who have proved themselves unworthy of our trust (i.e. “Throw the Bums Out”)
The speed with which the people can turn on their elected leaders is in direct proportion to how high the initial approval ratings and how wide the subsequently perceived gap between expectations and performance.
In accord with the above political axioms America is now at the mid-point of one of the most dramatic transformations in all of our history. While the truth of this assertion cannot be fully known until at least November 2010, already the extraordinary events of 2009 culminating in the recent elections and the imminent climax of the proposed health care revolution give abundant evidence that a decisive turning point in our nation’s history is at hand.
In the day following his narrow election in the tumultuous year of 1968 Richard Nixon told the story of the little girl who asked him to “Bring Us Together”. While that mission didn’t end too well for Nixon, nonetheless that little girl’s three words represented an enduring aspiration and expectation that Americans have for all their Presidents.
In 2004 a relatively unknown Barack Obama electrified the Democratic convention by insisting that there should be “ no blue states or red states, but only United States of America” Four years later candidate Obama-aided by the Perfect Storm of an unpopular war, a more unpopular President, and an apparently collapsing economy- with rare eloquence offered Americans the shining vision of a “post-partisan America” where old wounds racial and otherwise would be healed and the country would be “positively transformed”.
That vision and the visionary that inspired the nation on that sunny January Inauguration Day seemed almost too good to be true. And so it has proved.
Barack Obama’s first year approval ratings though still respectable have fallen further faster than any other President in over half a century. Support for his ambitious agenda has plummeted even more precipitously. Instead of the promised “post-partisan” America our body politic is more polarized than at any time since the Vietnam /Watergate era.
The frighteningly unprecedented explosion of deficits, and the national debt so threatening to future generations and the vast societal redesign inherent in both Obamacare and Cap and Trade is not the “positively transformed” America that people thought they were being promised in the 2008 campaign.
Only events of the next twelve months punctuated by the mid-term elections will accurately measure the forces of political disaffection now clearly moving across the nation. Nonetheless current polling reveals growing majorities opposed to the “extreme makeover” of healthcare, seeing the country as on the “wrong track”, and deeply concerned about runaway spending and debt.
All this spells certain trouble for those who currently rule the political roost. What is equally certain is that just one year ago no one foresaw this extraordinary turn of events.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, U.S.A. Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun , Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.