Friday, August 27, 2010

On Your Own

"You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging
For your next meal.

"How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?"

Bob Dylan
Like a Rolling Stone

In less than a year, Bob Dylan will be 70 years old.

That's probably hard to comprehend for a lot of folks who can remember the lanky twenty–something fellow who burst onto the music scene in the early 1960s and composed songs that became anthems for social and political movements in America, a seemingly hesitant troubadour of unrest.

But those ballads may be due for a comeback, and, in the years to come, the twilight of Dylan's career may be remembered as a revival of the songs he wrote when his career was dawning half a century earlier.

I say that because, with each passing day, I get a greater sense of a growing unease and frustration. The middle class is being squeezed out of existence. People with college degrees, even advanced college degrees, have been out of work for months, even years. Many are losing the unemployment benefits that have kept them going — and with them, they are losing their faith in the future and in their leaders.

Speaking of unemployment benefits, I heard some people speaking optimistically recently about the fact that initial unemployment claims were below expectations for the first time in four weeks.

But Jeffry Bartash of MarketWatch quoted Brian Levitt of OppenheimerFunds, who wisely warned that the number of new claims (473,000) is "still an elevated number."

No kidding.

"Nevertheless," wrote Bartash, "investors welcomed the news and U.S. stocks rose modestly in early Thursday trades."

What do you suppose is the message that is being received by long–term unemployed Americans and those who are partially employed or "underemployed?"

Do you think it could be that, as long as you have deep pockets, deep enough to invest in stocks — and political campaigns — you won't be abandoned by your government, but if you're an individual who has worked hard for years to feed his family and keep a roof over the heads of his spouse and children, but you lose your job, not because of anything you've done but because of the mistakes of the higher–ups, then you're not even close to being too big to fail — and your government will throw you under the bus just to show that it can pinch pennies?

"[T]here are well over 14 million Americans without a paying job," writes Mortimer Zuckerman of U.S. News & World Report, "so the level of discontent is very high. Just how are they going to regain control of their lives?"

I've heard a lot of people worrying about Barack Obama's plunging job approval numbers. And, I'll grant you, those numbers are alarming, especially when you compare them to the incredible approval numbers that accompanied him into office (when, if you want to be technical about it, there was nothing, other than rhetoric, of which to approve or disapprove) or some of the numbers of his predecessors.

For example, Gallup currently has Obama's approval rating at 43% and his disapproval rating at 50%. That was the same approval rating George H.W. Bush got in a Gallup poll about two weeks after he lost the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992. It is also the same approval rating Ronald Reagan — the same Ronald Reagan who is now revered as a conservative icon — had when his party suffered setbacks in the 1982 midterm elections.

And it's lower than any of the job approval findings for Clinton right around the time of the 1994 midterm elections — when Clinton's party lost control of both chambers of Congress.

Obama and the Democrats insist that things are better than folks think, a proposition that seems to me to be so fantastic that it belongs in a Monty Python movie. When Joe Biden, for example, talks about how great the economy is doing, he sounds to me like the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," swearing that his injuries, which left him with no limbs, were merely "flesh wounds."

Maybe they are right — it's a tough point to prove or disprove, with much of it relying on the largely unverifiable claim that jobs have been "saved," which has an almost evangelical ring to it — but, if they are right, the president's got a helluva publicity problem.

And it is a perception to which Obama himself appears to contribute willingly, sometimes eagerly. There is a growing disconnect between this president and the people that Obama is unable — or unwilling — to see. Sometimes — the mosque near ground zero controversy is a good, and timely, example — he seems determined to take a position that is practically guaranteed to antagonize the most people.

To be fair, though — even though it is part of the overall picture — that doesn't specifically address the economy in general or joblessness in particular. But, for that matter, neither did Obama last Labor Day.

It seemed like the ideal time to encourage — or even inspire — the jobless, maybe talk about what he was doing to promote job creation. At the very least, it was a time to reassure the unemployed that he hadn't forgotten that they were hurting and he was doing everything he could to relieve their pain.

But he never did. His focus on that day was on campaigning for health care reform and preparing to address the school children of America.

When you narrow it down to that, however, it's more of the same. He claims that he's been working on and promoting job creation since Day One, but many of the unemployed have seen no evidence of it. They don't know if he's arrogant or flippant or if he takes it for granted that the voters will never turn on him, that they will always adore him as they did in 2008.

But, whichever it is, he's living in a fool's paradise.

You can be sure that the voters do know that, nationally, unemployment is at 9.6%. It was about three percentage points lower when Obama was elected.

Even those voters who are the least knowledgeable of economic theories can tell you that doesn't sound like progress, never mind those who have gone farther in their economic studies than the principles of supply and demand.

Yet I continue to hear the same excuses I've heard since 2008 — this is Bush's fault and all criticism of Obama is based in racism.

The voters can't hold Obama responsible this year. He isn't on the ballot. But more than one–third of the Senate seats, all of the House seats and three–quarters of the governorships are on the ballot. And many of those jobs are currently held by Democrats.

It's no surprise that Congress gets low marks from voters. Congress always gets low marks from voters. But who is affected the most really depends on which party is in the majority. And, with so many Democrats holding congressional offices, a big thumbs down from the voters in 2010 is an expression of dissatisfaction with the Democrats that seems likely to be transferred to the ballot box.

It's really pretty simple, isn't it?

So, Democrats, let me ask you this. How's that working for you?

I can tell you what the latest congressional approval ratings say:
  • Let's start with the best news for Congress. It comes from the Associated Press/GfK, which reports that 24% of respondents approve of the job Congress is doing. That's a pretty significant drop, though, from the response to polls three and four months after Obama took the oath of office — when nearly 40% of respondents approved of the job Congress was doing.

    That might not sound great, especially compared to the 60s Obama was receiving around the same time — but, in the context of the history of this kind of polling, you can take my word for it. It's pretty impressive.

  • CBS News chose to emphasize the fact that, in its recent poll, Obama's job aproval rating went up slightly.

    But, while you had to hunt for it, the poll found that only 22% approved of Congress' job performance.

  • The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey has been polling cell phone users only.

    The fact that those respondents are all cell phone users suggests that they are among the most receptive to emerging technology, but they haven't been as receptive to Congress, with only 21% approving of the job Congress was doing.

    And these surveys have consistently shown that the cell phone users are unimpressed with the direction of the country. Currently, the survey reports, 58% believe the country is going in the wrong direction.

  • Gallup's findings were even more discouraging, in part because Gallup's surveys usually are the most reliable.

    And Gallup found that only 19% approved of the job Congress was doing.

    Like Associated Press/GfK, Gallup found much higher approval ratings for Congress in the spring of 2009, but that approval has declined steadily ever since.

    On the plus side, 19% approval represents an improvement over Gallup's finding from last spring. But it shows virtually no change in Congress' rating this summer.
I guess the bottom line is that, if you're out of work, you're on your own. Brush up on your Dylan.

If you've got a job, do whatever you have to do to keep it — even if you hate it.

And if you're a congressional Democrat running for re–election, you've got plenty of problems. Many of those Democrats, I am convinced, will not be successful in November. Make room in the unemployment line.

In the meantime, maybe Obama will say something — anything — about joblessness on Labor Day.

But don't hold your breath.

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