Americans Make Do, Tune Out Washington

Visits to California and South Carolina find Americans resilient, yearning for leadership.

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Incompetence in the rollout of the new health care law. Rising distrust of the president. Dysfunction and stalemate in Congress. Pervasive income inequality. The latest poll finding that only 26 percent of likely voters say the country is headed in the right direction and 67 percent say the United States is on the wrong track, according to Rasmussen Reports.

Day after day, the bad news from Washington is enough to spread indigestion across the country this Thanksgiving weekend. But my sense is that something else is happening that is cause for hope and optimism. It is a strong spirit of perseverance and a surge of self reliance and grit in the face of adversity.

[POLL: Obama's Approval Rating Sinks to All-Time Low]

People are working hard to make ends meet, but they aren't complaining about it. It's just considered part of modern life. They may be losing faith in their leaders in Washington, as polls indicate. But they are confident they can weather whatever storms come along, with or without the federal government's help.

These are some conclusions I've drawn from two weeks of travel in California and South Carolina for a tour to promote my latest book "Prisoners of the White House," and for a family vacation. You couldn't find two more culturally different places. Yet there were common threads.

Many of us who work in Washington share the conceit that the rest of the nation is paying close attention to what goes on inside the beltway. Very often, this is not happening. People are going about their busy daily lives instead.

The front page of the Greenville News during the past few days reflected local concerns. On Tuesday, the newspaper published one international story about peace talks to end the civil war in Syria, but the two other page one stories featured concerns that were much closer to home. They were headlined, "Passengers describe moment train derails," and "Storm to bring lots of rain.'" On Wednesday, the three front-page stories were headlined, "RiverPlace plans to expand," "Families plan out holiday shopping," and "A mill community reborn."

In San Francisco, people seemed less concerned with the events that obsess Washington and far more worried about a transit strike at BART, the popular subway system. This strike was recently been resolved.

[WALSH: Public Supports Obama on Iran]

Even though Americans are down on Washington and, as Rasmussen Reports found, nearly seven out of 10 say the country is headed in the wrong direction, I found no spirit of gloom and doom. People were open and friendly, not suspicious and distant as they've been when I traveled on other reporting trips over the years to assess the mood of the voters.

But Americans feel something is missing. A 60-something woman in San Francisco told me at a book signing that she had been motivated by President John F. Kennedy long ago to join the Peace Corps and pursue a commitment to public service. It happened to be November 22, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. "He changed my life," she said. She added sadly that politicians today lack JFK's inspirational qualities. 

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." Ken Walsh can be reached at and followed on Facebook and Twitter.

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