The rosy picture painted by President Obama in tonight’s State of the Union address contrasts starkly with the reality millions of working-class Americans are living. Within minutes of beginning his speech, the president had touted improvements in the unemployment rate, the housing market, the manufacturing sector and the federal budget deficit. He said 2014 would be a “breakthrough year” for the country. As a public opinion researcher, I can tell him many of the people he was elected to represent see things quite a bit differently.
From Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Penn., to Phoenix and Orlando – I have heard the fear and frustration in the voices of American voters. Part of my job is to travel around the country, convening focus groups with voters and giving them a chance to share what’s on their minds. What they’ve told me over the last six months has been profoundly discouraging.
The recession is long over, but its reverberations continue to be felt in communities far away from Washington, D.C. Mothers wonder uneasily about the moral fiber of the world they’re bringing their children up into. Fathers speak about the bleakness of their prospects for making the kind of living they never had to worry about before. One woman explained that going bowling or going out to dinner are no longer affordable options for her family, because prices keep rising while her income fluctuates. When asked whether they would be willing to pay a little more every month if it means ensuring all Americans have access to health insurance, they say no – not because they don’t want others to get the care they need, but because their budgets are stretched too thin already.
Just this week, a new poll from the Washington Post and NBC News found 63 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, and 68 percent say things have gotten no better at all since the president took office. They are scared silly by the nation’s mounting debt – the only thing they want Congress to focus on more than reducing our deficits is creating jobs. The unemployment rate may be down, but they know it’s because their friends and neighbors have given up looking. It’s clear that all the president’s glowing accomplishments, his triumphs of trickle-down government, are failing to improve their lives in any kind of meaningful way.
President Obama probably had no choice but to put on a happy face for tonight’s speech; that is what the occasion demands. But his outlook must have been jarring to the regular Americans watching him at home. Those of us with comfortable lives in wealthy D.C. suburbs or tony New York City ’hoods need to be reminded how exceptional our experiences are. The promises on which Obama’s presidency were built, of hope and change and a Washington that works, are still a long way from fulfillment.