WASHINGTON — To hear President Barack Obama describe it, there's a creeping case of cynicism setting in across the country, leading Americans to suspect that not only is Washington broken, it's beyond fixing.
If that line of thinking continues, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy with dire long-term ramifications, Obama says. If compromise-minded Americans get so frustrated they just tune out, lawmakers will feel even less pressure to work together for the good of the country.
With a mix of alarm and dismay, Obama has started musing about the dangers of cynicism in nearly every major public appearance. The cautionary note has showed up in speeches to students and civil rights groups, at Democratic fundraisers — even in his meeting with Pope Francis.
It's a sharp change in tone from the days when then-candidate Obama rallied millions to his side with ambitious aspirations about hope and change.
"It's easy to be cynical. In fact, these days it's kind of trendy," Obama told a crowd of thousands recently in Minneapolis. Cynicism may masquerade as wisdom, he said, but it can't liberate a continent, invent the Internet or send a man to the moon. "Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice."
But in Obama's stagnant second term, those inclined to cynicism haven't had to look far.
With Washington at a near-standstill politically, both parties have essentially written off prospects for any major legislation for the remainder of Obama's presidency. Obama' attempts to circumvent Congress to get things done have drawn rebukes from the Supreme Court and a threatened lawsuit from the House, casting a bright light on the state of Washington dysfunction.
"There were at least times in 2011, 2012 when we had big battles over things, but they usually wound up with something getting done," Obama's senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, said in an interview. Not anymore, he said. He blamed the poisonous atmosphere on six years of a concerted GOP strategy to breed cynicism for political advantage.
Obama's aides say he has always worried that Americans were tuning out their dysfunctional government. In his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama said Americans have no choice but to transcend the "dead zone" that American politics had become. And in a speech to the Democratic National Committee the next year, Obama implored voters "to stop settling for what the cynics say we have to accept."
But Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host and Obama critic, said Obama has failed to pull the country out of that mindset even where other presidents of both parties have succeeded. He said Americans have seen how Wall Street has blossomed under Obama while average Americans have suffered and have given up on Obama's ability to govern effectively.
"This is an Obama phenomenon," Erickson said. "As much as Republicans may be recalcitrant and refusing to work with the White House, the White House doesn't seem very willing to work with them either."
Obama isn't the only president to cast his own challenges through the broader lens of American malaise. When President Jimmy Carter felt beset by pessimism amid the energy crisis in 1979, he gave a startling speech warning that a "crisis of confidence" posed a fundamental threat to U.S. democracy. And in the run-up to the 1994 election when Democrats lost both chambers of Congress, President Bill Clinton offered a similar if more subdued warning. He blamed conservative talk radio for a "constant, unremitting drumbeat of negativism and cynicism."
This time, there's plenty of blame to go around.
Americans' confidence in all three branches of government is falling and has hit the lowest level of Obama's presidency, according to a Gallup poll last week. While Congress usually earns low scores, less than one-third of Americans now have confidence in the presidency or the Supreme Court, erasing the gains both enjoyed at the start of Obama's presidency.
"If you're fed a steady diet of cynicism that says nobody is trustworthy and nothing works, and there's no way we can actually address these problems, then the temptation is to just go it alone, to look after yourself and not participate in the larger project of achieving our best vision of America," Obama told college students at a graduation ceremony last month in Irvine, California.
"Don't buy into it," he added.
Jon Favreau, Obama's chief speechwriter for his first four years in office, said the president's comments reflect a return to the type of aspirational rhetoric that characterized his first campaign. He said Obama sees using the bully pulpit to keep Americans engaged as part of his responsibility as president.
"What the president's trying to say is, 'I know we're in stasis right now and there's been gridlock for a while, but there are two responses to that,'" Favreau said. "'One is to stay out of the public debate and give up hope. That's cynicism. The other is to say even with how bad it is, I'm still going to try to get stuff done.'"
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