The hope is gone.
Four years into the age of Barack Obama, and a dozen years into a new century, America is struggling to find its way.
It’s been attacked. It’s rushed into two wars, grown disillusioned and turned homeward. It’s endured the worst financial collapse in 80 years.
At the political fringes, Americans have felt cast adrift by the powerful and taken to the streets in anger – the tea party from the right, the occupy movement from the left. In the vast middle, tens of millions still look for work, grapple with paychecks that don’t buy as much, or sleep in homes worth a fraction of what they once did.
As the two major political parties meet back to back in national conventions to chart their way to victory, this the unsettled landscape behind the speeches and posturing. The nation is engaging in not just an election but a deep debate over how it wants to dig out of these problems and chart a new course. The key question: Does it want the government to lead the way to a new era or should it simply get out of the way?
Like turning points of the past – the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, the economic and political stagnation of the 1970s – the result could produce a new order. Or, like the last decade, the country could refuse to rally to one side, swinging narrowly back and forth between the two major parties, the politics gridlocked and venomous.
“The temperament of the country is one of insecurity,” said Randall Miller, a historian at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia. “Insecurity about who we are, who we want to be, where we are going.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Obama four years ago campaigned for the presidency with a promise of hope and change that excited the nation.
“When he was running for office, we were inspired by what he was saying,” said Michael Fox of Hudson, N.C.
Fox still likes the president. But the economy wears on him after watching his auto shop business sink. “All the money’s dried up,” he said.
The numbers are stark.
Unemployment has been above 8 percent for 42 months, nearly all of Obama’s presidency. African-Americans have a jobless rate topping 14 percent.
For those with jobs, incomes have dropped even more since the end of the recession in 2009 than they did during it.
Families’ net worth has dropped, driven by a plunge in the values of their homes. In the Tampa Bay region near last week’s Republican National Convention, some homes worth $600,000 a few years ago are worth a third of that today. New home sales have picked up but still lag well below normal levels.
Stocks have rebounded since 2008, restoring retirement accounts. But it’s not enough. By a steady margin of 2-to-1, Americans think the country’s on the wrong track.
It’s not just the recession.
For good or ill, people are grappling with a world where the rules are changing.
A global economy and an information age are making some U.S. jobs obsolete. Illegal immigration has stopped, but the tide of legal and illegal migration over the past two decades has changed the country. Labor unions are shrinking, some under assault. The definition of marriage is changing.
"I get so fed up when I go to the store and pick something up and it’s made in China or Chile or God knows where," said Ted James, a retiree in Nampa, Idaho.
Gradually, the country’s turned inward, away from wars and the threat of terror that dominated politics from 2001 onward.
Troops are coming home. Unmanned drones are taking over the hunt for al Qaida terrorists abroad. Terror mastermind Osama bin Laden is dead. Few even noticed when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney this summer called Iran the nation’s top security priority and did not mention the so-called global war on terror that once dominated American politics.
“We’ve turned the page,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion and the McClatchy-Marist Poll. “We’re war weary and broke.”
If not broke, very much in debt.
A decade of wars that were not paid for. The decision to have Medicare cover prescription drugs in the biggest expansion of an entitlement since the 1960s. Costly bailouts of the U.S. auto industry. Spending to stimulate the economy out of recession. And a refusal to raise taxes.
After years of demanding and getting more government than they would pay for, Americans and their government have $16 trillion in debt.
The credit card bill colors the country’s politics and makes it all the more difficult to rally to any of the major party proposals to fix the underlying economy.
Democrats want to spend more to educate and train people for jobs in a changing economy. Republicans want to cut taxes to put more money in people’s pockets and get them to spend.
But there’s no money. And the politics is so toxic, it’s unclear the parties can bridge the divide anytime soon.
“There’s a much higher degree of skepticism, if not cynicism, about the political options,” said Bert Rockman, a historian and political scientist at Purdue University in Indiana. “Anyone who comes in with the expectation that they can bargain with the other side is foolish.”
Rick Anderson of Monterey County, Calif., is more optimistic – but not about the immediate future.
Laid off from an architectural firm in 2008, he’s one of the millions who’ve adapted. “I ended up going on craigslist and offered my services at lower rates. A couple of architects were interested and now I have done that for four years,” he said.
Now he thinks things are getting better, but that it will take more time. A lot more.
“I think the economy is on the right track and I think we will recover in the long run, but it will take a couple of presidencies to fully recover,” he said. “Realistically, the world is no longer flat.”