Dear Mr. President:
There is a man in Jacksonville, Fla., named Bryan Stone. He is 60 years old and works at a company that helps people find better jobs. He describes himself as "more to the right than the left," though not all that far out from the middle. And he has something to say about the way America used to be that he wouldn't mind you hearing.
"Everybody knew what the rules were," he says. "That's not true anymore."
Hours from now, Mr. President, you take a brief oath and, after a bumpy and contentious first term, you begin your second. You know more about the nation you lead than do many of your 315 million employers. But the presidency, and the concentric circles of posturing that surround it, form a bubble that shields you from so much.
Here, then, is one snapshot — an interpretation of how it feels in America right now. It's broad-brush and subjective, as any snapshot of a nation so big and diverse must be. And how America feels is different, of course, from how America IS. But perceptions, as the bumps and bruises of your first term have shown, can become reality.
We hold one truth to be self-evident, Mr. President: Americans feel deeply uncertain about the state of the nation right now. Very few of us seem to know what the rules are anymore — or even where we are going. Just this past week, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll found that 57 percent of Americans polled think the country's on the wrong track. Not as bad as October 2011, when it was 74 percent. But not very optimistic, either.
The people are fragmented, consumed, distracted, sometimes paralyzed by choices. Look at the comments section below any major news story posted on the web and you'll see your countrymen denouncing each other in bulk. Is this the glorious mess of democracy or a sign of something uglier?
Last month after Newtown, for example, we wept in disbelief and pain for a few days and then many of us set to shouting. Regulate guns, insisted one side, and you'll stop children from dying. Take law-abiding citizens' guns away, insisted the other, and you place us in greater danger and violate one of the nation's most fundamental rights.
Simple, right? Just like these easy labels: Liberals are big-government-loving socialists who can't stop taxing and wasting. Conservatives are gun-loving, callous warmongers who don't care about the common people. Pathetic.
"When we go around perpetuating those stereotypes, it furthers that sense that we're so polarized. When I don't think that we really are," says one of your constituents, Liz Owens Boltz, a web content administrator in Sylvania, Ohio. She's an independent who has voted Republican in the past but voted for you.
This is part of the problem, Mr. President, the contradiction of our age. We are multitudes, yet we have built a story of clustering in two camps. You inherited deep divisions, and you say you are trying to make things better. But, to hear your adversaries tell it, you have made them worse. If only there were one clear answer flashing in neon above the highway. How American that would be. But there are many answers, and none. And we don't even seem to have the language to discuss them.
"I'm looking for a little more thoughtfulness and discussion and compromise and a little less knee-jerk political posturing," Boltz says. "We tend to treat our government and politics like we treat our bodies — we don't see things being a problem until it's an emergency. But preventative care and long-term solutions, it's a little less sexy. If we're all in this black/white, yes/no mindset, how do we make progress?"
Since the beginning, the United States has prospered as a one-or-the-other nation, building itself around sharply drawn contrasts. Freedom or tyranny. Farm or city. Black or white. Blue or Gray. Good or evil. And, eventually, Democrat or Republican. These outsized stories have served us well and helped us erect our republic on clear bedrock principles. But the trouble is, the world didn't cooperate. It got all fragmented. There's no longer a Walter Cronkite who can say "That's the way it is" and be listened to.
Instead, every statement by just about anyone has 1,000 opinionated offspring, each with a globally connected digital loudspeaker. Never before in American history have so many been able to shout down so many others so quickly. Put geographically, it's become harder and harder to view our experiment in democracy as a land mass; more and more, we're a series of small islands separated by choppy waters.
"What would you really put into an American time capsule today?" wonders John Baick, a historian at Western New England University. "Our time capsule would be so filled with so many different things and so little in common with each other. There's so little notion of a consensus. So little notion of what America is, and so little notion of who belongs in the snapshot."
What is that like from inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to consider the sound of 300 million opinions? How do you even begin to parse the problems? How do you take people who are accustomed to answering true-or-false questions and lead them through the high weeds of multiple choice?
And the problems are legion.
We are spending beyond our means. As a society and as a government, the United States has been using a credit card when it should have had a debit card. Yet discussions about how to run the American family budget only provoke more shouting and gridlock and brinkmanship. How would an average household have solved the fiscal cliff crisis, Mr. President? Would it ever have gotten to that point? And yet economic confidence, while hardly robust, is creeping up — as is the American economy itself, though sluggishly.
We made the middle class an ideal for so long, and now even that is a definition for argument. For tax purposes, you want to be counted as part of it. If you're poor, you're having trouble getting into it. It grows broader and narrower at the same time, and ultimately meaningless.
We keep asking, most recently through the debate on Obamacare: How do we care for our ill, our elderly, our poor? Do we look to government, or to ourselves? It is a centuries-old tension that we still struggle to solve.
We look outward, and challenges lurk in every direction. China's rise — economic threat and opportunity — is not slowing, and its sphere of influence is expanding. Little al-Qaidas are eyeing ways to sow terror, and the decade-long struggle to keep the nation safe has taken its toll in the way we view freedoms — the ones we hold onto and the ones we exchange for safety, or at least a feeling of it.
And the gun. Again, the gun. It shaped and protected our nation, and it is also killing us. Both sides have strong, passionate arguments. Both sides make sense — some of the time. More people want stronger gun regulation, and more people are buying guns. And both sides, as is the American way, are certain they're right.
Gay marriage still causes arguments. Both sides of the abortion debate are as far apart as ever. Disputes over the role of religion in public life never recede. The constant American principles of freedom and morality — the Puritans' legacy — still collide, and still divide.
We still call ourselves individualists loudly, assertively, obstinately, but we are individualists who often want to be guided. Some look to God for this, others to once-solid 19th- and 20th-century institutions that are fading or buckling. To the workplace, which no longer guarantees the Horatio Alger story of hard work producing a lifetime of being able to provide for those you love. To the physical town, so many of which faded with their Main Streets a generation ago. To unions, which behind their activism and advocacy contained a structure of community support that held fast for decades.
"Those connective tissues that were there, they're gone — and they're not being replaced," says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, which studies American life in Muncie, Ind., and other towns like it in the Midwest. "The withering of those connections," he says, "leaves people with a sense that they're at sea, they're on their own."
Opportunities to draw together with our neighbors — people who were like us but also different, compelling us to learn to get along — are becoming harder and harder to find. And that chips away at the feeling of being part of an enduring civilization. Yes, that's a cultural thing, but it is also part of why are politics are the way they are.
"To get things done," says Connolly, "you need other people."
What to do? When to do it? Who to listen to? How to view the nation and its path? Answering those questions is your responsibility, Mr. President, but it's also all of ours. And maybe, un-American though it might sound, sometimes the act of doing is not the only answer.
"Taking things seriously doesn't always mean immediately fixing. Sometimes it means thinking about it," says Asma Abbas, who teaches politics and philosophy at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Massachusetts.
Bright rays poke through. We have endured enormous challenges before and prospered. Our innovation, optimism and entrepreneurial human capital remain the strongest in the world. So far, we are expressing our national crankiness with words, not weapons. In person we are mostly nice, even if on Facebook we are not. And remember, though more than half of us think the country's on the wrong track, more than a third think it's on the right one.
Let's return to Bryan Stone, the man at the top of this letter. He gazes out at the edges of our political system, at the poles that give their name to polarization, and he sees no real way forward there. "I'm 60 years old," he says, "and very few times in my life have I seen the answers come from the extremes."
Long ago, Mr. President, one of your predecessors spoke in his inaugural address of "the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me." ''No event," he said, "could have filled me with greater anxieties."
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That was George Washington, one of the few politicians most of the country can still agree on. He gave shape to shapelessness and helped define the contours of the new republic with very little in the way of a road map to guide him.
Your road maps are many, Mr. President, but they all say different things. And somehow, 224 years after Washington took office, the shapelessness feels even bigger now, the challenge even more confusing. So what will you do next?
Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted