Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that enjoys pessimism in good times.
In this week’s post we’ll discuss the current doldrums of American political and public views that have persisted despite continuing economic gains. Is this a unique circumstance connected to the Obama administration’s second term? Or is it a consistent historical pattern in American presidential politics?
Tune in to the paragraphs below to see somewhat coherent sentences and possible answers that ring bells! Or you know, you can tune out too. That’s your choice as the blog reader.
The Current: Not so Popular
According to Real Clear Politics poll averages, only 43.8 % of Americans approve of President Obama at the moment while 51.1 % disapprove of his work as executive leader. The low poll numbers are not entirely surprising for a 2nd term president, especially one prior to an election year. Congress, of course, is keeping up its abysmal numbers, coming in at 11.3% approval and 77% disapproval.
The more surprising numbers are the opinion polls on the direction of the country which show that only a mere 27.6% of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction while 64.4% think that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
These are some surprisingly low numbers given the macroeconomic state of affairs and the continuing positive monthly reports on the job front. The economy has usually been a harbinger for Presidential approval ratings, yet so far improvements in unemployment numbers and GDP growth have not translated into political points for the President or the country as a whole.
So why the doom and gloom America?
Let’s try and see if we can gauge some specific rationale for American dissatisfaction.
Is it Economic?
Some people might see a paradox when they look at the unemployment rate and latest jobs report from October and see unemployment down to 5% and 270,000 jobs added (both positive) and then see the numbers revealing a distressed public.
But of course, positive economic data as a whole does not tell the story about how Americans feel about their opportunities to improve their situation or provide a better life for their children.
Since the Great Recession, most media and statistics have focused on the availability of jobs for all Americans as the Unemployment rate stood at a high of over 8% for many months. Though the unemployment rate has been reduced and the country’s GDP much enhanced, the numbers don’t show the lasting effects of the great recession on the % of people in the labor force, the long-term unemployed, and the effects on those who have given up looking for work.
But now that hiring has increased and more people have some income, it has become more about what Americans can do with that income and how it can translate into wealth. The stagnation of income for middle and lower class America contrasts with the top income brackets whose wealth has increased at a very high rate.
An astonishing 22% of all wealth is controlled by the top 0.1% of the population in the U.S. (as of 2012), a rate that has not been seen since the oil baron and steel magnate days of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt. Arguments are being made that the U.S. is now more an oligarchy than democracy.
Is it the Cost of Education?
Most Americans’ idea of a ticket to success is a college education, and the numbers do seem to continue to back this sentiment up. Increasingly, however, the value of a college education has begun to not add up when compared to the skyrocketing cost of tuition and the match-up of skills learned and available highly skilled jobs.
As is well known, the skyrocketing cost of tuition has forced many college grads to take out expensive loans and live at home or rent which delays home buying and significantly affects the cost of living, and has quickly becoming a hot topic on the campaign trail.
Is it social dynamics and demographics?
Could the feelings of economic inequality, the increasingly unaffordable rental market, under-performing and underfunded schools, high crime levels, and unequal treatment by law enforcement that are felt at higher levels by minority groups be affecting the general mood of Americans?
The consistent feeling of discrimination showing itself in everyday American life has now become a mainstream topic whether it is Black Lives Matter protests following police killings of blacks or whether it is stories of everyday discrimination. This “reawakening” for many Americans may be contributing to the majority dissatisfied feeling.
Is it the “End of Second Term Blues”?
Historically, with the exception of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, second terms have been on average a less popular relationship between the head of state and the American public since 1900. This has been such a predictable event that it has its own name: the 2nd term curse.
President Obama’s first term averaged 49% approval and so far his second term approval has been on par with the historical average, hovering in the low 40s – though it has seen some fluctuations. Obviously the presidents work is tied to many factors that occur during his term, many out of his control.
Perhaps Americans simply want to see some new faces at the helm.
Or Is it simply the Pall of Current Events?
The spates of violent terror attacks and mass shootings around the world have heightened tensions and raised fears for the public of their safety and of the most contentious issues that face Americans. Gun ownership, abortion rights, institutional racism, immigration, and military action against the many headed hydra of Islamic extremism are all pasting the headlines, social media front pages, talk shows, and of course the presidential campaign trail.
Of course! The presidential campaign trail! How could I have forgotten??
Nothing seems to have brought us down further than watching and hearing this gaggle of 2016 candidates – perhaps knowing that one of these individuals will be leading the Executive Branch of government as a representative of the American people is enough for anyone to hibernate in an icy depression despite a sparkling unemployment rate.
I think what the most disappointing thing to see is the devolution of a certain populace who continue to say they support egotistical maniacs like Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz. What it ultimately shows is that bigoted white Christian men are scared. They are scared because they see a tide that is turning towards policies that may benefit all the people, and you know, not just the white folks. By 2060, there will be a plurality of ethnic groups with no majority white status for the U.S. But the day of no white majority in terms of children under 5 years old has already arrived (In 2014, 50.6% of all children under 5 were non-white).
The loudmouths who call themselves legitimate presidential candidates tell this populace what it wants to hear: “women are objects” “all Muslims are terrorists” “healthcare access for women is not important” “the government is trying to take our guns” “All immigrants are un-American” “white men need to stick together to protect only our interests and prevent others from prospering in the same country”
And these people eat it up because the politicians are playing to these “fears” of losing the majority. Interestingly, this group that supports Trump say they don’t want to support politicians, they want somebody who “speaks their mind” and “tells it like it is.” If telling it like it is is lying to the public, then they are supporting the iconic politician! Seeing this campaign and debates so far with the resulting poll numbers is enough for a prescription of Zoloft.
Why are these fears of “losing control of the country” unfounded? (aside from them being ridiculous, racist, and pre-1860) Let’s chart it out:
Black and latino families have 6% and 8% of the wealth respectively, that white families do. This is a startling connection to the wealth and income gaps explained earlier that have widened since the 1970s. The wealth and income gap is defined startlingly on racial lines. Not to mention that lack of equal pay that still exists for women compared to men ($0.79 compared to $1).
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1968 because he saw that segregation was only half the battle. The PPP was intended for all Americans, but its aim was to help blacks who made up a large portion of the poor in America (1 in 7 at the time was in poverty). He knew that economic inequality would leave blacks just as unequal and out of opportunities as before Brown v. Board. Dr. King unfortunately would not see the organization to its potential as he was assassinated in April of 1968. The racial and economic divide has not yet since decreased.
So current events combined with the media frenzy surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign (it’s been going on for almost a year, with 1 more to go) has created a sense of disappointment and negative attention to foreign and domestic affairs. This feeling combined with very challenging social issues and continuing economic conditions has likely contributed greatly to the poll numbers which we see on the direction of the country.
Finally, what we should try and remember is that as bad as it may seem, things are actually pretty good in many ways. The “boring” indicators of GDP and employment are all up, the U.S. has built many positive relationships with allies and strategic partners in economic and global concerns (such as climate change), and on the domestic side, many new policies are being put into place as a result of the difficult conversations had about race, prison sentencing, economic status, infrastructure, health care, tax issues, and more. This isn’t to say that the challenges mentioned above don’t exist or aren’t true issues, it’s just that the positive side of the story is often lost in the shuffle.
Until the next poll,
Your faithful historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Is it Mr. Green in the Billiard Room with the revolver?
No, no it isn’t. Stop reading this blog and go to bed.
Sources and Further Reads: