A Nation of Pessimists?

One of the many great joys of not working in business — and not having an administrative job in education — is that you don’t have to sit through those long, tedious meetings with human resources managers and staff. You know. The ones where those institutional paper shufflers are always opining that the collective morale of the organization is at the lowest point ever — and moving south from there.

I wonder if we are becoming a nation of human resources managers. Or said another way: pessimists.

Here’s a NYT story about a new New York Times/CBS News poll, “Nation’s Mood at Lowest Level in Two Years“:

Americans are more pessimistic about the nation’s economic outlook and overall direction than they have been at any time since President Obama’s first two months in office, when the country was still officially ensnared in the Great Recession, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

Amid rising gas prices, stubborn unemployment and a cacophonous debate in Washington over the federal government’s ability to meet its future obligations, the poll presents stark evidence that the slow, if unsteady, gains in public confidence earlier this year that a recovery was under way are now all but gone.

Capturing what appears to be an abrupt change in attitude, the survey shows that the number of Americans who think the economy is getting worse has jumped 13 percentage points in just one month. Though there have been encouraging signs of renewed growth since last fall, many economists are having second thoughts, warning that the pace of expansion might not be fast enough to create significant numbers of new jobs.

The dour public mood is dragging down ratings for both parties in Congress and for President Obama, the poll found.

After the first 100 days of divided government, and a new Republican leadership controlling the House of Representatives, 75 percent of respondents disapproved of the way Congress is handling its job.

Part of this attitude stems from the lack of quality jobs — the kind that provide some security and the ability to provide for a family. Say what you want, but the administration’s economic stimulus efforts may have maintained some public service jobs, but it sure hasn’t stimulated much job creation.

Also, it’s hard to be optimistic — certainly enthusiastic — about things as gasoline prices creep toward $4 a gallon in most parts of the country, topping $5 a gallon in some. And the housing market remains a disaster — unless you live Inside the Beltway.

I also believe that the national debate on important issues — shaped in large part by elected officials and Washington insiders in the media and policy wonk think tanks — has turned increasingly pessimistic. In two years, we’ve gone from — yes, we can — to — let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best. Sheesh.

Charles Krauthammer has an interesting take on all of this as he handicaps the potential GOP candidates for the White House in his WaPo opinion article, “The racing form, 2012“:

Unified Field Theory of 2012, Axiom One: The more the Republicans can make the 2012 election like 2010, the better their chances of winning.

The 2010 Democratic shellacking had the distinction of being the most ideological election in 30 years. It was driven by one central argument in its several parts: the size and reach of government, spending and debt, and, most fundamentally, the nature of the American social contract. 2010 was a referendum on the Obama experiment in hyper-liberalism. It lost resoundingly.

Of course, presidential elections are not arguments in the abstract but arguments with a face. Hence, Axiom Two: The less attention the Republican candidate draws to him/herself, the better the chances of winning. To the extent that 2012 is about ideas, about the case for smaller government, Republicans have a decided edge. If it’s a referendum on the fitness and soundness of the Republican candidate — advantage Obama.

Which suggests Axiom Three: No baggage and no need for flash. Having tried charisma in 2008, the electorate is not looking for a thrill up the leg in 2012. It’s looking for solid, stable, sober and, above all, not scary.

OK. Look. Charles knows more about this than I do. But in large measure I believe that the next election goes to the candidate who can convince voters that America isn’t sliding down the rat hole — that there is reason for optimism, not pessimism about the future of this country, based on some realistic, doable and common sense approaches to policy.

And clearly we don’t need or want a Pollyanna. We have big issues and problems in this country that must be addressed — and soon. But I would rather follow someone with the optimism of a Ronald Reagan than the pessimism of a Jimmy Carter, who wrapped himself and his presidency in a blanket of malaise.

Here’s Reagan:

I know. Dutch was far from perfect. But at least he moved us for a time away from being a nation of human resources managers — and restored some optimism and pride in this country.

Let’s see in 2012 which candidate convinces us that yes, we can.

Rather than, no, we can’t.

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