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Obama's First Year: The Expectations Crisis

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On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. A year later,voter approval of the Obama Administration has declined and the GOP victory in the Massachusetts Senate race is a chilling indication that Congressional Democrats will lose seats in the mid-term elections. What explains the Dems reversal of fortune?

The obvious explanation is the economy. America's working families are struggling; unemployment is high and good jobs are hard to find. Many Americans feel the US is headed in the wrong direction.

Despite the fact that the recession was the responsibility of the Bush Administration, the Republican message machine has done a good job blaming Dems, convincing working-class voters that "government caused the problem." Surprisingly - because Barack Obama is such a superb speaker - the White House has lost control of the political narrative. President Obama hasn't been able to reprise his message of hope and convince voters that he's leading them out of the darkness.

Americans are frustrated. To working families, "bail out" funds appear to have gone to Wall Street instead of Main Street. There's righteous anger that the profiteers responsible for the 2008 economic meltdown have prospered while the rest of us have suffered. Meanwhile, Republicans have done a good job tying Democrats to Wall Street - it's a variation on the historic GOP refrain that Dems are the Party of west and east coast elites.

Nonetheless, a better explanation for America's sour mood is that the US is in a crisis resulting from diminished expectations.

Since the end of World War II, Americans have clung to a myth that promised the US would always be the land of unlimited opportunity and progress. As a result, we expected our standard of living to rise every year, our children would have a better life than we have had, and our grandchildren will have an even better life. The 2007 bursting of the housing bubble led to the 2008 financial crisis and, in 2009, the destruction of the myth of inevitable progress. Now, Americans are depressed because they no longer expect a better, brighter tomorrow.

As the dust of the financial crisis settles, it's become apparent that for the last decade, Americans have been living beyond their means. Between 2000 and 2008, real median household income went down 4 percent. During the Bush Administration, the only folks who did well were the wealthy; everyone else got short changed. This reality was hidden by widespread deficit spending; the financial services industry cajoled Americans to spend more than they earned. While financial inequality increased, working families went deeply into debt using credit cards and home-equity loans. Then the housing bubble burst, taking with it the myth of inevitable progress. Suddenly, many working families realized they couldn't afford to own a home or buy a new car. Americans became discouraged and angry.

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One of the basic rules of American politics is that voters prefer a positive message; they want to believe that progress is inevitable. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won reelection because he convinced the electorate it's morning in America. Reagan promised Americans a better, brighter tomorrow; he assured working families they could "have it all" if they only voted Republican. Sixteen years later, George W. Bush echoed the same sentiments when he guaranteed that our lives would get better if the GOP cut taxes and de funded government.

In contrast, Jimmy Carter lost voter support when he gave his infamous Crisis of Confidence speech in 1979. Carter was brutally honest when he observed, "there are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems," but he turned off voters when he stated, "there is simply no way to avoid sacrifice."

For thirty years there has been an unacknowledged "third rail" in American politics: don't ask Americans for sacrifice. After 9/11, George Bush told us to go shopping; on September 27, 2001, he said, "Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida." There was no call for sacrifice.

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama inherited a double-sided problem: the worst American economy in eighty years and voters who believe in the myth of the free lunch:government will fix whatever ails America and it will do this for free. Obama has made progress repairing the economy, but hasn't dealt with the expectation crisis. Democrats haven't been able to counter the Republican claim that Americans can have it all if government gets out of the way.

History teaches that at the core of every problem there is an opportunity. The expectations crisis is an opportunity for Obama to redirect America. The President needs to take command of the political narrative, convince voters that the US has gotten off track and the only way to recover is to pull together for the common good. Obama must replace the magical belief in inevitable progress with the historic American myth of the benevolent community.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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