When the Nation Has the Blahs …

by Stuart Rothenberg June 12, 2013 · 9:37 AM EDT

Is the nation suffering from a national case of hypochondria, or are Americans rightly worried about the country’s future?

The answer depends, in part, on your (political) point of view. But it’s also true that every bit of good news — rising home prices, rising stock prices and an increase in federal tax revenues that improves Medicare’s short-term outlook — seems to be followed by a warning, a disappointment or tragedy, some of them weather-related, that brings gloom and doom.

The U.S. economy is expanding, but at a disappointingly slow pace. Jobs are being created, but not enough to make a real dent in the nation’s unemployment and underemployment rates.

The Obama health care plan is about to kick into high gear, but polls suggest that the public isn’t enamored with it. Republicans believe that dissatisfaction with the plan will fuel anger toward the president and his party as the months roll by.

Everyone seems to agree that we need an immigration policy rewrite, and a comprehensive bill with at least some bipartisan support looked likely to come out of the Senate. But the road looks rockier today than it did a couple of months ago, and the outlook in the House remains iffy.

Republicans have the Obama administration on the defensive over the IRS and Associated Press controversies, but their party has not been able to rebrand itself in any meaningful way.

And while the president hasn’t been hurt by the controversies (scandals, if you prefer) that have hit his administration and the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, the combination of high levels of distrust of important institutions, pessimism about the future and Republican control of the House after the midterm elections seem to preclude truly successful final years for the Obama presidency.

We’ve gone through periods of anger, fear, sadness and even hopefulness over the past five or six years. But more than anything else, the country seems to be in a national funk. Economic catastrophe isn’t lurking around the corner, but neither is economic resurgence or vibrancy.

It’s not like President Barack Obama has been a complete bust as a leader, though some will say that’s exactly what he has been. But even if you give him credit for things that liberals applaud — health care, disengaging from Iraq and Afghanistan, growing support for same-sex marriage and higher taxes on the wealthy — it’s impossible to conclude that he changed the tone in Washington or brought Americans together, as he (and President George W. Bush before him) promised.

Yes, of course, Republicans didn’t exactly make it easy for him to do that. But after five years, blaming the other party for all the nation’s ills goes only so far.

Current polling shows a nation split on Obama’s performance, but it also shows a large majority of Americans agreeing that the future does not look all that bright.

Asked to think about “our system of government and how well it works,” fewer than 1 in 3 respondents in a May 30-June 2 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll were “generally optimistic” about the future. When asked how much confidence they had in the federal government, only 17 percent said “a great deal” or “quite a bit,’ while 42 percent said “very little” or “none at all.”

The same survey found only 36 percent of respondents saying that they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the economy, while 64 percent were “very” or “somewhat” dissatisfied with it. Fewer than a third said they expected the economy to get better during the next year, while just under half said that they expected it to remain about the same and 18 percent said they expected it to get worse.

A large majority, 58 percent, said the economy was in recession, while only 38 percent said it was not. And while only 33 percent said they were “quite” or “extremely” confident that the president has “the right set of goals of policies to improve the economy,” 36 percent said they were not at all confident.

The May 31-June 4 CBS News/New York Times poll found that 6 in 10 respondents believed the national economy was in “fairly bad” or “very bad” shape these days and a slight majority, 51 percent, described the job market in their area as “fairly bad” or “very bad.”

This is not a pretty picture, for politicians or for the country.

Growing concerns about Big Brother and Big Government won’t hurt the president with his core liberal and Democratic supporters, who still view him as a historic figure whose values and political views reflect theirs. And there isn’t much Obama can do now to placate conservatives and Republicans suspicious about his agenda for remaking the country.

But for the folks in the middle, the blahs could produce either political apathy or a feeling of frustration that will lead them to send another message of dissatisfaction, as they did in 2010. That message might not be as loud, but it could have the effect of, for all practical purposes, marking the end of the Obama presidency.