Americans are eager for Washington to act on a host of issues they care deeply about, but instead they’ve just witnessed another week of sharp rhetoric and political finger-pointing.
There was the one-hour and six-minute speech from President Barack Obama as he barnstormed the Midwest this week, billed as his blueprint for a still-shaky economy but laced with blasts at Republicans. There’s Congress about to leave for a five-week summer recess next Friday, but still entangled in a long-running feud over how to write a federal budget. Once again a government shutdown is possible.
Pick a big issue, and the progress report ends with little, if any, progress.
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The budget? Stalled.
Curbs on the National Security Agency’s data collection? Almost.
The public is frustrated with Washington’s inertia. A series of McClatchy-Marist national polls, taken July 15-18, found that people across the nation remain worried about the economic future. A majority still thinks the country is in a recession, though the downturn officially ended four years ago. People want something done about the immigration mess, and they’re concerned about the federal government’s gathering of data from phone calls, emails and Internet use.
They’re clamoring for their elected representatives to do something about all these concerns – even just one – but think that they’re not. President Barack Obama’s job approval numbers this month hit their lowest level in nearly two years of McClatchy-Marist polling, and Congress’ are even worse.
“There’s an eagerness to move forward, but there’s a major disconnect between what goes on in Washington and what people are experiencing,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York, which conducted the poll.
Take the Obama speech. “I don’t think it built any trust,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
Nor did it seem to forge any bond with the American people, given the lack of much congressional reaction, pro or con. The president’s new economic push comes six months into a second term marked by a gun control initiative that’s stalled and a White House agenda eclipsed by a series of domestic and foreign policy crises.
Still, jobs and finances consistently show up as the issues that worry Americans most.
“With as many people as we have saying that we’re a long way from a recovery, for him not to be talking about the economic problems that remain unsolved would be unconscionable and not very wise,” said Andrew Kohut, the founding director of the Pew Research Center.
But the president is hamstrung by the political climate in the capital, where Republicans in the House of Representatives are more worried about tea party challenges on their right than about moderates on the left.
“It’s a desperate situation and there’s no silver bullets, so you do what you can,” George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University, said of Obama.
Edwards said the president, who once thought he could change minds through the power of persuasion, had begun to realize his limitations.
“They shouldn’t be under any illusion that (Obama’s new economic initiative) is going to change the political landscape in a fundamental fashion, because it’s not,” Edwards said. “All of this is going to be on the margins.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the economic speeches part of a “sustained effort.” Aides said that would include six to 10 appearances in different cities. Obama’s political arm, Organizing for Action, entered the fray Friday with a 60-second cable ad featuring clips of his speech.
The president will be back on the road Tuesday, speaking at an Amazon facility in Chattanooga, Tenn., about manufacturing and high-wage jobs.
Obama’s effort so far is landing with a thud on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are making it exceedingly difficult for him to succeed. Not only are they moving to sharply cut spending on favorite Obama programs, they’re at war with themselves over a plan to keep the government running after Oct. 1 only if funds to implement the new health care law are slashed.
The Senate has offered a few glimmers of collegiality, with a compromise this past week on new student loan rates and bipartisan passage last month of comprehensive immigration legislation. But leaders of the Republican-run House quickly made it clear that they wouldn’t take up the Senate’s immigration bill.
House Republicans have their own problems when it comes to immigration. In an interview this past week, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said that many young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally had “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
Republican leaders, under pressure to soften the party’s image as the power of Latino voters grows, quickly condemned the comments. They were all the more awkward because King made them even as some party leaders were warming to proposals to make it easier for the children of immigrants who are here illegally to become citizens.
“Of course,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, when he was asked whether King’s remarks made finding a solution tougher.
Boehner’s more difficult task has been trying to protect the NSA programs. For weeks, lawmakers vigorously defended the activity, despite growing constituent concern.
This week the groundswell proved too powerful, and leaders reluctantly let Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a second-term congressman, offer a plan to restrict the activity. The buildup to the vote said much about Washington’s disconnect. The McClatchy-Marist poll found that a strong majority thought the government had gone too far and wanted limits on what could be monitored.
Though the effort failed, the vote was telling because it didn’t fit the usual partisan or ideological pattern. It was as true an expression of the will of constituents as Congress ever sees, and it prompted intelligence committee leaders to promise to at least take a closer look at the programs.
A sign of hope that the gap between the public and its elected officials might close? Probably not. People want results, not symbols, and that’s why near-miss votes or Obama speeches are unlikely to convince Americans that their government is listening.
Next week promises more tough talk. Obama plans to use his new economic initiative to throw down a gauntlet on the upcoming budget battles. House Republicans will discuss using the vote on raising the debt ceiling to cut spending; the White House has said it won’t negotiate.
"Threatening that you won’t pay the bills in this country when we’ve already racked up those bills, that’s not an economic plan," the president said. "That’s just being a deadbeat."
But Obama is unlikely to succeed in trying to prod a reluctant Congress and satisfy the public’s yen for action.
“It’s always been a puzzlement to me how such a powerful communicator, and such a powerful communications shop during the campaign, failed so miserably in figuring out how to communicate governance,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow and political expert at the University of Southern California. “He’s coming to it late.”