Unhappiness, Yes; Defeatism, No

In these hard times, give the country credit for continuing to do some things right.

By SHARE

Is health reform on life support? Did Massachusetts really speak for the rest of the country? Hey, I don't know. I don't think other people do, either. But it is clear that whatever you call the 2,000-page healthcare legislative leviathan, it's not going anywhere for a while. It's also clear that the nation is filled with a lot of unhappy people, and that trust is about as hard to find today as a job.

[See Best Affordable Places to Retire.] In the trust department, it turns out that older Americans have some of the most negative opinions of what's been going on in the country. In a Harris Poll released last week, people were asked about President Obama's priorities during his first year in office. The grades were not good: A (20%), B (29%), C (20%), D (12%), and F (20%).  Harris broke down the responses by age groups, and in just about every case, people aged 55 and older handed out lower marks for the President: A (18%), B (24%), C (18%), D (16%), and F (24%). 

Harris also asked people about their perceptions of Obama's specific priorities in the past year. Did he spend the right amount of time on an issue, too little, or too much? Across the board, people said he spent way too much time on healthcare and way too little time on the economy, employment, and the federal budget deficit. Again, people aged 55 and older were much more likely to find the President paid too little attention to certain key issues. While 59 percent of all adults said employment received too little attention, 71 percent of the 55-plus crowd said so. With the budget deficit, 56 percent of all respondents said it received too little attention, but 62 percent of those aged 55 and up said so. For the economy, it was 48 percent (everyone) versus 60 percent (55 and older), for education it was 47 percent versus 54 percent, and for homeland security it was 47 percent versus 58 percent.

While there certainly is no shortage of things to be unhappy about these days. it's worth pausing a bit to look at the list of serious issues confronting the country -- the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism, trillion-dollar budget deficits, and sustained environmental deterioration. Creating yet more friction is a growing Main Street-Wall Street rift, fueled by enormous bonuses at financial firms occurring while unemployment rates remain in double digits and middle-class salaries are lower, adjusted for inflation, than they were a decade ago.

[See Best Places to Retire.]

I don't know if we should cut the politicians any slack but don't you think we should give the country, and ourselves, a little breathing room? We are awfully tough critics these days. That's understandable given how high the stakes have become in any number of important areas. But one of the great virtues of the United States always has been our view of it, and ourselves, as a work in progress, a grand experiment that makes a lot of mistakes but is headed in the right direction. We believed in ourselves and that helped sustain us during some rocky periods.

Are we still headed in the right direction? A lot of polls say we don't think so. Wherever you look, you can see failure -- schools that don't work, a decaying infrastructure in danger of collapse, homeland insecurity, an energy crisis, and on and on. But we have at the same time made huge forward strides -- we are living longer than ever with improved quality of life for most people, we have become much better stewards of the environment, and our young people in particularly have become much more tolerant of people from other races and cultures. These are significant achievements. So, are our people and natural resources today really fundamentally different than during periods when we felt really good about where the country was headed? There is, to be sure, a lot that has changed about our financial resources and our beliefs. A recession will do that. Our national will is being put to a difficult test.

Yet while these are extraordinarily tough times, look at how we've responded to the horrific earthquake in Haiti. We are helping in huge numbers, and we'd like to do more. We have a great heart, and perhaps some of the sympathy being directed to the Caribbean could be shared with our fellow citizens at home. Right now, everyone says the vote that sent Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts to the U.S. Senate means it's not business as usual anymore. Let's hope that spirit also applies to our willingness to work together, because that's what we'll need to get out of this mess.

[See Let's Stimulate a Recovery in Confidence.]