Now that the debt ceiling increase has been signed into law, avoiding financial default, many Americans will conduct their own postmortems — at the ballot box in 2012. I suspect the public’s reaction to prevailing economic turmoil and the lack of jobs will not be pretty, but it will be assertive, representing a clear case of buyer’s remorse.
On July 31, the New York Times reported the public’s "doom, disgust and disbelief" as the D.C. scenario wound to a close. That mirrored RealClearPolitics polling reports from the week before that no winners were emerging from the debt ceiling fiasco. Obama’s average job approval rating hovers near 44 percent and is falling — Gallup had him recently at 40 percent approval and Congress at 17 percent approval. A whopping 67 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is on the “wrong track,” with 46 percent disapproving of the debt ceiling increase.
The Tea Party was roundly criticized, mostly by more liberal news outlets. Television interviews with Tea Party congressional loyalists had them coming across as naive and sometimes goofy, and stubbornly unyielding — traits of questionable value among 435 members of Congress, where reaching agreement is part of one’s job description.
Republican and Democratic congressional leaders marched before television cameras with their dutiful leadership teams embarrassingly in tow, even as they told us little beyond political slogans. Delegating control of spending and taxes to a future “super committee” of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats may be futile under the new law, judging from Congress’ latest performance.
Obama performed perhaps worst of all. Obviously struggling to remain relevant and avoid being left out of the debt ceiling drama, Obama came across as hyper-political, self-serving and phony — certainly not a leader for the times, even as he made a puzzling primetime Oval Office speech to tell us no deal had been reached. Presidents should be a cut above all other politicians: encouraging and optimistic, hopeful and reassuring. Obama was petty, partisan and un-presidential, using worn-out language that frightens seniors about Medicare and Social Security payments, and inciting class warfare. While the debt ceiling deadline loomed, Obama continued to use the code words “revenue enhancements” and “a balanced approach” for tax increases and higher spending to fund government “investments.” It was overall a shameful performance for our big-spending leader of the free world. Obama will be haunted by his tactics in the next election.
As many Americans painfully watched their market-based investments dwindle while D.C. leaders dawdled until the last minute for political advantage, it became clear that many members of the current ruling class care more for themselves than for those they serve. As ultra-conservative Republicans sought the perfect, immediate fix for America’s cumulative economic problems, they stubbornly bypassed a hard-fought John Boehner bill (no tax increases, nearly $1 trillion in reduced spending, followed by entitlement reform), insisting that a new balanced-budget constitutional amendment be added. The amendment process is anything but immediate: Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution allows states seven years to ratify such an amendment. Predictably, the amendment language was scuttled in the Senate, and the compromise that became law ended up being arguably weaker than the original Boehner bill. Amendment supporters seemed to cop out by whining, “Save us — we can’t balance the federal budget without a constitutional amendment!”
Self-righteous, narrow-minded congressmen are usually sent home after one term. Democrats who harped about Republicans “gutting” Medicare and Social Security should have been ashamed as their noses grew longer. They also deserve to be sent home next election.
The United States faces a leadership gap, and a self-inflicted one at that. American society — particularly the young — now disrespects politicians in the worst way possible — they tune them out. It reminds me of the hit song by Sting, “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” when he sings, “You could say I lost my belief in our politicians, they all seem like game-show hosts to me.” Having disrespected political leaders in power is not good for either our culture or system of government.
Often we ignore those with whom we disagree, and the public is disengaging from day-to-day politics in increasing numbers. As American society becomes a culture of special interests, including separating the population by racial background, and elected officials rely on those interests for re-election, we get public officials elected less for their overall judgment and experience and more for their reliable support on a handful of issues. They’re then unprepared for the difficulties of governing and seeking the common good for everyone they represent.
Perhaps our democracy has reached a sad turning point — a society much too dependent on inefficient governments, special interests that determine election outcomes regardless of our nation’s overall needs, crushing debt and public failure to understand what has made America great over the course of 235 years.
When voters clamor for leaders they think America needs, and then get them (Obama and other extremists come to mind), and that chosen leadership fails, buyer’s remorse sets in. That’s where we are now, unsure of our leaders and their collective abilities to serve our nation well.
But the elections of 2012 offer us an opportunity to elect wise, mature, seasoned leaders to exercise the sound judgment in public affairs that America so desperately needs.
Let’s hope some of them run for office.
George Nethercutt is the former Republican congressman representing the 5th District of Washington. His column appears here once a month.