Over the last couple of weeks I've been hearing rumblings. They're not from the staged or misinformed protestors at town hall meetings who have decided that shouting down a member of Congress is their right as American citizens. They're not from "the left" -- that wild, unruly group of bloggers and Birkenstockers the White House has called on repeatedly, both in public and in private, to be quiet.
They're from the parent who came to pick up her daughter after a play date with my five-year-old, as we stood in the door chatting. They're from my cousin, a family doctor, who called me when he heard about Big Pharma's sweetheart deal with the White House to prevent negotiations on the cost of prescription drugs. They're from a guy I sat next to on a plane this week who doesn't follow politics all that closely but follows closely enough to know that bankers seems to be getting bonuses as homeowners are getting foreclosure notices.
These people aren't "raving liberals." Most of them haven't even gotten word yet that they're supposed to call themselves progressives (and none of them knew the secret progressive handshake). They're ordinary voters who either sometimes or reliably vote Democratic, who were members of the Obama majority in 2008 and were convinced that this time their vote really mattered. Now they're disillusioned.
They can see the economic upturn. They see the Dow rising. They know that corporate profits are no longer in a free-fall. But they can also see that those profits are rising as their own company is considering another round of layoffs -- and that those two facts are not unrelated. And what they feel summarizes what they see: where before they had hope, now they feel primarily frustration and resentment.
As one of these people recently said to me, the cadence of Obama's speeches that used to give her shivers is now starting to grate on her nerves.
I knew just what she meant. I first had that feeling when I watched the President's speech in Africa. This time, superimposed on my usual response to Obama's eloquence (and his willingness to speak directly to people who American presidents have often failed even to notice) was a different feeling -- anger -- and a very different thought: What's he doing in Africa when the tide of public opinion is turning on health care reform back home? Africa will be there in 3 months. Public sentiment for genuine reform -- not a Botox bill, which will momentarily cover up the wrinkles in the pained face of our health care system long enough for a smiling Rose Garden ceremony -- may not.
A disquieting pattern seems to be emerging. When the President put in charge of our financial system a man who had led the New York Fed during a period of extraordinary Wall Street corruption and another who had helped dismantle protections against it, many of us scratched our heads in confusion. When he traded off billions in stimulus money that would have prevented precisely the cuts states are making today -- laying off workers and slashing essential programs, which runs counter to the whole point of the stimulus package -- for the same kind of tax cuts that ballooned the deficit during the Bush years, many of us thought he was just a really bad poker player. But he was playing solitaire, with no one on the other side of the table. We figured every President is entitled to his early mistakes.
But then came the news about the new law designed to protect consumers from credit card companies raising their rates. The President described how Americans had had enough of the fine print. But one provision seemed awfully odd: a 10-month grace period for credit card companies to "adjust" to the new legislation and make whatever changes they wanted in the meantime. You normally don't give burglars your vacation schedule in advance so they have time to "adjust."
Then the reports started to come in from ordinary Americans who were seeing their interest rates hit the roof -- applied retroactively to money they had borrowed before the recession hit or they lost their jobs.
I got my own letter today:
Important Account Price Change Notification
We are raising your Annual Percentage Rate (APR) on purchases and cash advances.
We are raising the Annual Percentage Rate (APR) on any balances that have a penalty rate because of a late payment.
We are increasing the late fee.
It was very thoughtful of them to tell me. But I was surprised the letter didn't say how much the new rates would be. I looked for a second page, but there wasn't one. Then I flipped it over, and there it was -- in fine print.
So the President and Congress passed a new law protecting consumers from predatory lending practices and credit-card fine print, but they gave the credit card companies a grace period during which they could raise the rates and put them in the fine print. Funny, I don't remember a similar grace period for homeowners who can't pay their mortgages. Couldn't we have had a homeowners' equivalent of the student loan program, through which the federal government would give homeowners no-interest loans for a couple of years to get them through the tough times so they don't lose their homes, particularly when the unemployment rate is near 10 percent because somebody else gambled with their incomes and assets, instead of giving banks zero-interest loans and allowing them to charge usurious rates on existing debt?
Of the millions of Americans who are receiving letters like this every day, I happen to be one of the lucky ones. I don't carry a balance on my credit cards, my home is still worth more than my mortgage, and I still have a job. But if Americans are starting to turn populist anger toward a White House that has doggedly refused to focus that anger where it belongs -- toward the banks, the mortgage brokers, the regulators who failed to regulate, the oil companies that have blocked energy reform for decades while racking up record profits, the health insurance companies that make their profits by denying coverage and discriminating against the ill, the pharmaceutical companies whose lobbyists have negotiated away the right to negotiate, and the Republicans who bankrupted the treasury during the eight long years of the Bush Presidency and crashed the economy on their way out -- I can understand why.
The American people did not vote for "bipartisan" solutions that split the difference between the failed ideology of the last eight years, which continues to cost thousands of people their jobs and homes every day, and the change the President and the super-majorities they elected in both houses of Congress promised.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."
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