It's getting harder and harder for most Americans, looking honestly at the state of the nation, to see the glass as half full. And that's why the public opinion polls contain nothing but bad news for Barack Obama and the Democrats.
The oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the war in Afghanistan and, above all, the continuing epidemic of joblessness have pushed the nation into a funk. All the crowing in the world about the administration's legislative accomplishments - last year's stimulus package, this year's health care reform, etc. - is not enough to lift the gloom.
Obama and the Democrats have wasted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity handed to them in the 2008 election. They did not focus on jobs, jobs, jobs as their primary mission, and they did not call on Americans to join in a bold national effort (which would have required a great deal of shared sacrifice) to solve a wide range of very serious problems, from our reliance on fossil fuels to the sorry state of public education to the need to rebuild the nation's rotting infrastructure.
All of that could have been pulled together under the umbrella of job creation - short-term and long-term. In the immediate aftermath of Obama's historic victory, and with the trauma of the economic collapse still upon us, it would have been very difficult for Republicans on Capitol Hill to stand in the way of a rebuild-America campaign aimed at putting millions of men and women back to work.
Obama had campaigned on the mantra of change, and that would have been the kind of change that working people could have gotten behind. But it never happened. Job creation was the trump card in the hand held by Obama and the Democrats, but they never played it. And now we're paying a fearful price.
Fifteen million Americans are unemployed, according to the official count, which wildly understates the reality. Assuming no future economic setbacks and job creation at a rate of 200,000 or so a month, it would take more than a decade to get us back to where we were when the Great Recession began in December 2007. But we're nowhere near that kind of sustained job growth. Last month, a measly 41,000 private-sector jobs were created.
We are in deep, deep gumbo.
The Obama administration feels it should get a great deal of credit for its economic stimulus efforts, its health care initiative, its financial reform legislation, its vastly increased aid to education and so forth. And maybe if we were grading papers, there would be a fair number of decent marks to be handed out.
But Americans struggling in a down economy are worried about the survival of their families. Destitution is beckoning for those whose unemployment benefits are running out, and that crowd of long-term jobless men and women is expanding rapidly.
There is a widespread feeling that only the rich and well-placed can count on Washington's help, and that toxic sentiment is spreading like the oil stain in the gulf, with ominous implications for President Obama and his party. It's in this atmosphere that support for the president and his agenda is sinking like a stone.
Employment is the No. 1 issue for most ordinary Americans. Their anxiety on this front only grows as they watch teachers, firefighters and police officers lining up to walk the unemployment plank as state and local governments wrestle with horrendous budget deficits.
And what do these worried Americans see the Obama administration doing? It's doubling down on the war in Afghanistan, trying somehow to build a nation from scratch in the chaos of a combat zone.
By nearly 2 to 1, respondents to the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll believed the United States is on the wrong track. Despite the yelping and destructive machinations of the deficit hawks, employment and the economy are by far the public's biggest concern. Obama is paying dearly for his tin ear on this topic. Fifty-four percent of respondents believed he does not have a clear plan for creating jobs. Only 45 percent approved of his overall handling of the economy, compared with 48 percent who disapproved.
It's not too late for the president to turn things around, but there is no indication that he has any plan or strategy for doing it. And the political environment right now, with confidence in the administration waning and budgetary fears unnecessarily heightened by the deficit hawks, is not good.
It would take an extraordinary exercise in leadership to rally the country behind a full-bore jobs-creation campaign - nothing short of large-scale nation-building on the home front. Maybe that's impossible in the current environment. But that's what the country needs.
© 2010 New York Times News Service