SIMI VALLEY, Calif.–Americans are shaking their heads and wondering why so much has gone wrong in Washington. That much is clear from the public opinion polls.
But beyond the numbers, you get a more complete understanding of the depth of Americans' disdain for politicians in the capital, including President Obama, when you break away from the Washington bubble and get out among everyday folks.
People don't seem truly angry. They aren't ready to storm Washington with torches and raised fists as some tea party conservatives appear to believe. Nor are people ready for a huge increase in the power of the federal government as some liberal activists hope. Instead, there is a sort of despair because Washington has descended so far into dysfunction and political paralysis. And there is a rising sense that the current establishment can't fix what's wrong.
Under these circumstances, the credibility of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress is suffering. But so is the credibility of President Obama, which is especially important because Americans look to the president as their chief problem solver in many ways.
Trust in Obama is declining and many Americans no longer believe he is a man of his word, according to the polls. This is partly due to how he and his administration have handled the rollout of his signature health care law. It's been a mess and an embarrassment, which Obama admitted Thursday. He promised to fix the law, but it remains to be seen whether he can really do it and whether Americans believe him. He and the rest of the political establishment in Washington have sunk that far.
The latest Quinnipiac poll finds that for the first time a majority of Americans – 52 percent – say Obama is not honest and trustworthy. Gallup also finds that only half the country thinks Obama is honest, a drop of five points since September.
A conversation I overheard this week during a five-and-a-half hour flight from D.C. to San Francisco made the point. A middle-aged, soft-spoken flight steward got into an extended chat in the back of the plane with a burly mid-career Marine traveling across the country. He was in jeans and a T-shirt but his closed-cropped haircut and "yes, ma'am ... yes, sir" approach to strangers gave his occupation away.
The Marine mostly kept quiet and nodded politely as the flight steward vented. She said people around the world were "laughing at us" and losing respect for the United States and our president because of the pols' embarrassing refusal to get along or get things done as illustrated by the recent government shutdown.
She didn't seem angry, really, just forlorn that her leaders had let her and the country down. It struck me as the kind of "throw the bums out" attitude that could lead to the defeat of many incumbents around the country in next year's congressional elections.
This is one of the impressions I've gathered during my current book tour for "Prisoners of the White House," my new volume about presidential isolation.
By the way, it's clear that isolation isn't peculiar to presidents. It also afflicts members of Congress and the news media based in Washington.
A tour of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley showed how things have changed for the worst. Exhibit after exhibit illustrated how President Reagan was able to get things done by combining principle with pragmatism. That's becoming a lost art in Washington.
During a book talk I gave at the Reagan library Thursday, audience members were clearly upset and depressed by the mess in the capital and how isolated their leaders, including Obama, seem to be. One man blamed it in part on the power of big political donors who capture the pols with their money. Many in the crowd appeared to agree. The incident was another sign of the deep distrust of the establishment.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.