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Obama hasn't changed, but the country has

Barack Obama hasn't changed. But the country that elected him has. We seem to have lost our collective nerve.
Image: 2008 Democratic National Convention: Day 4
The president is almost boringly consistent. The same cannot be said for Americans. What has happened to us?Spencer Platt / Getty Images
/ Source: Politics Daily

"Change you can believe in" on education, health, energy, climate change, Iraq, immigration, Wall Street, and Guantanamo Bay. Barack Obama ran for president on all of that, he won on it, and now he's trying to get it done.

He hasn't changed. But the country that elected him has. We seem to have lost our collective nerve.

We've lost our confidence in ourselves, our government, and our institutions. We've lost our taste for boldness, our eagerness to experiment, our openness to the future. Enough of us are in hunker-down or angry-protest mode that Obama faces a struggle for every approval point in public opinion polls and on nearly every issue before Congress.

There is no question that this is the same person the nation elected with 53 percent of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes. His return to Cooper Union this week would have been a powerful reminder of that even if he hadn't reminded us himself in his speech.

At the same lower Manhattan venue two years ago, speaking then as a contender for the Democratic nomination, Obama sounded awfully concerned. We've lost our sense of "shared prosperity," he said, and allowed Wall Street to drag down Main Street. "We've excused and even embraced an ethic of greed, corner cutting, insider dealing" that threatens our long-term economic stability, he said. Foreclosures are rising and credit for students, states, and everyone else is drying up. We need, he said, new "rules of the road" for Wall Street.

Obama deserves credit for peering around corners and trying to think ahead, not just in 2008 but also in 2007, when he made a similar speech at Nasdaq, also in lower Manhattan. So Thursday's speech was the third in the series. He is almost boringly consistent. The same cannot be said for Americans. What has happened to us?

The economy, of course, is the starting point. At the time Obama was sounding alarms at Cooper Union in 2008, the unemployment rate was 5.1 percent. It was the third straight month of job losses. Economists fretted because the loss of 80,000 jobs was higher than expected. There was little doubt a recession had begun. Gallup found 80 percent dissatisfied with the direction of the country. The federal deficit was projected to reach $250 billion by Oct. 1.

In retrospect, those statistics are laughably innocuous. Six months later, the economy went into a terrifying free-fall. U.S. households experienced losses of wealth measured not in hundreds of billions (as Obama predicted at Cooper Union) but in trillions (more than $14 trillion by April 1, 2009). For each of the six months starting in November 2008, more than a half million jobs vanished. The current 9.7 percent unemployment rate is down from 10.2 percent last October. The current deficit projection is $1.3 trillion — down from an initial estimate of $1.6 trillion.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks produced a "new normal" marked by security fears and heightened vigilance. The "new normal" since the Great Recession is economic uncertainty for just about everyone. Since 2008, Gallup says, less than half of Americans have rated their financial situations positively. On Thursday, the firm said that number has fallen to a new low of 41 percent. "Their ratings of their current financial situations have never been worse than they are today," Gallup said of Americans in releasing the latest statistic.

It makes sense that in this economic climate, a lot of people would be wary of change and mistrustful of their government. As the Pew Research Center documents in a major study, trust in all levels of government has ebbed. In October 1997, when the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent, 50 percent said the federal government had a positive impact on their personal life. That's down to 38 percent now.

The Great Recession coincided with the election of the country's first black president and an outpouring of anger on the right at his attempts to turn his campaign platform into law. That he is a Democrat means extra helpings of anger and mistrust. While both parties trust the government more when their party holds the White House, Pew says, that trend is more pronounced among Republicans. Right now, only 13 percent say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right, nearly as low as the 11 percent for Bill Clinton in June 1994.

The Pew poll makes clear that anger is not the prevailing sentiment across the land. Most people (56 percent) are more frustrated with the government than angry at it (21 percent), and 56 percent would be happy to see their kids work for the feds.

That said, the angry percentage -- made up of "Republicans, independents and others who lean Republican, and those who agree with the Tea Party movement" as Pew put it -- has doubled since 2000. That dynamic has driven the GOP's elected officials to the right and contributed to an increasingly confrontational tone, not just in protests or on cable but on the campaign trail and even within the Capitol.

When representatives on the House floor talk about health reform as Armageddon and socialism, when a congressman shouts "You lie!" at the president, and one member yells "baby killer" at another, when a former vice presidential nominee says there are "death panels" in the Democrats' health care bill, there's no mystery as to why some people are inflamed. Nor, to be fair, is it any wonder voters are cynical about a process that allowed one Democrat to secure a permanent financial break on Medicaid costs for his state alone. (Gone after an uproar, but still...)

After massive government spending and intervention in the economy to stave off catastrophe, it's also easy to understand why some people would be wary of more government action — even to address problems that many acknowledge need fixing. The exception to this in the Pew poll is financial regulation, or as Democrats like to call it, Wall Street reform. More than six in 10 say government should more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do business. People have not forgotten the causes of the financial crisis.

For those out there who may be wondering, I am not living a detached life in a recession-proof town, tower, industry or household. My husband was laid off late last year and he's been trying to start his own business. We know dozens of people going through similar transitions. We are all too aware that the post-crisis world can be capricious and inhospitable, even cruel.

And yet I am rooting for change and I'm also rooting for Republicans to be a part of it. Maybe we'll see a broader appetite to move forward, among the public and GOP officeholders, with the immigration and energy bills that are next in line after the financial bill.

There are two main reasons I'm on the side of change. One is personality. I'm willing to take calculated risks (Exhibit A, I left USA Today for a start-up — or should I say upstart? — website that turns one year old next week). The other is politics, since I generally approve of the directions Obama wants to go.

But here's the thing. Whether you thrive on risk or not, whether you approve of Obama or not, whether you love our government or hate it, change is coming. We're already in a global race to lead on energy and other technology. We're already under pressure to produce a highly educated, top-notch workforce, to reduce our spending on everything from health to the military, to increase our exports and pay off some of our debt. Change is coming. We ought to get out ahead of it and try to shape it to our liking.