NEW YORK – The US presidential election is still more than half a year away, and it is impossible to know with any certainty who will be nominated to represent the major parties, much less who will be the 45th occupant of the White House. But it is not too soon to assess the mood of the country’s more than 320 million inhabitants and what it will mean for the man or woman who ultimately prevails in what must seem to most people around the world to be an endless political soap opera.
The dominant mood in the United States today is one of considerable anxiety, if not outright anger. The Washington Post recently published a four-part series of articles revealing popular fury aimed at Wall Street, Muslims, trade deals, Washington, police shootings, President Barack Obama, Republicans, immigrants, and other targets.
One of the worst descriptions to be applied to a person nowadays is “professional politician.” The beneficiaries of this state of mind are anti-establishment candidates who espouse policies in opposition to free trade and immigration reform and who call for a radical overhaul of current tax and spending policies. The details of what they advocate may well differ, but their platforms share a promise of radical departure from the status quo.
The basis of this mood is hardly self-evident, as the country is better off economically than it was a half-dozen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2007-2008 economic crisis. Over nine million jobs have been created since then, interest rates are low (making loans for homes and cars more affordable), and the fall in the price of gasoline is the equivalent of a $700 tax cut for the average American family. Moreover, the stock market has risen some 200% since its low of seven years ago, and millions of people who were without health insurance are now covered.
Yet this good economic news is offset in many cases by weak growth in household incomes, which have stagnated in real (inflation-adjusted) terms for some 15 years. The percentage of Americans working full time has still not reached the level it was at seven years ago. And many fear that their jobs will disappear because of foreign competition, new technologies, or outsourcing.
A large number of Americans are living longer, but are anxious, as they have failed to set aside the funds needed to ensure that their retirement will allow them to live comfortably into old age. Some are paying health-insurance premiums that they previously had avoided because of mandates in the reform enacted under Obama.
There is also the issue of inequality. This causes real anger, but the problem is not so much inequality (which, though worse, is nothing inherently new) as it is the decline in opportunity. The American Dream is giving way to class consciousness – a profound change for a country founded on the ideal that anyone can improve his or her lot through hard work.
But the reasons for anxiety and anger transcend economic realities and worries. There is also physical insecurity, whether because of crime or the fear of terrorism. In many communities, there is concern, too, about where the culture and the society are heading.
Modern media tend to make things worse. Ours is an age of “narrowcasting,” not broadcasting. People increasingly tune in to cable channels or websites that reinforce their views and ideologies.
Little of this is reassuring. The national mood transcends the election campaign and will pose a real challenge to the new president and Congress. The divisions within and between the Democratic and Republican parties will make compromise and the formation of coalitions that are essential for governing all but impossible.
Concerns over retirement and health-care affordability will make it that much more difficult to reform entitlements, even though their expansion will drive up the national debt to record levels. Free trade is blamed for job losses and is losing support, even though it has also been a source of new jobs and greater consumer choice – and has strengthened America’s strategic position around the world. Immigration, long part of the country’s heritage and a source of valuable talent, is now the object of so much controversy that prospects for reform are dim.
The mood of the US may also intensify officials’ domestic focus. Already turned off by foreign involvement in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions, which cost much more than they achieved, many Americans are skeptical of what the US can accomplish abroad. They are frustrated with allies seen as not carrying their fair share of common burdens, and they are increasingly convinced that the government needs to focus less on the world and more on fixing what is wrong with the US.
Some in other countries will no doubt read all of this with satisfaction; but, overall, it is bad news for much of the world. An America that is distracted and divided is less likely to be willing and able to take the lead in promoting stability in the Middle East, Europe, or Asia, or in meeting global challenges. And, without US leadership, these challenges are likely to go unmet, turning into problems or, worse, crises.
Richard N. Haass, a former director of policy planning for the US State Department, is President of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming book A World in Disarray.
By Richard N. Haass