The addition of around 80,000 new jobs in the latest monthly report is another lackluster number that’s on the same mediocre economic trajectory as the last few months – or, really, the last decade or so. Analysts on the right will use it to criticize President Obama, and analysts on the left will say it’s on the right path while criticizing Republicans for the Bush years and a lack of leadership in Congress. But maybe it all means something more about America.
I just got back to Austin after spending nearly a week visiting some of my family in the Detroit area. Jake, my 23-year-old son, was with me, and he said on our flight back that he was glad he went because it helped him “get back in touch with his inner Dowd.” I wondered if this meant shooting fireworks at each other (the whistling bottle rockets are best for this), or the family humor laced with sarcasm and inappropriate innuendo. But I think what he meant was learning about himself from time spent with his cousins, aunts and uncles. He said that one thing he learned was that a person can be an individual who is free to go their own way and have their own opinions, not necessarily following the rules and judgments imposed by others — even family — while still be loving and caring.
Two of my brothers work in the manufacturing and industrial sector in the Detroit area, and each has four kids who are in or have gone through public schools. Another brother, who is a doctor and lives outside Seattle, flew in with his family for the Fourth. So we had conversations about lots of things, including politics and the economy, among ourselves as well as with neighbors invited over for beer and brats each night. (Boy, do I miss Bell’s Oberon beer, which is from Kalamazoo, Mich.).
But back to what I’ve sensed about the country. We talked about where things stand in America, and Obama, Mitt Romney, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Over the last year, Michigan has been on an economic upturn with a bit of a comeback of the auto industry, but home values are still stagnant after dropping more than 50 percent. I drove through my brothers’ neighborhood and saw sign after sign of houses for sale. They pointed out foreclosures or short sales that happened over the last year. So while things look better, there is still great anxiety and concern.
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From this trip, and from looking at things over the last six months, I am beginning to get the feeling that voters are shrugging their shoulders about politicians, no longer believing they can fix the economic problems. They’ve reset their expectations about how political leaders can change the dynamic. After watching basically no growth in real wages over the last decade, no real growth in private sector jobs and a stagnant unemployment rate, they don’t think that a president (or a governor, for that matter) can do much to change the situation.
They also feel that politicians making typical promises about how they are going to fix things are not realistic or to be trusted. The public seems increasingly to want to be told the truth and what to really expect. They don’t want to be sold some happy story with slogans and talking points, but instead given a real sense of where we are and what our future looks like. It seems that voters want to be included in the conversation, and asked to be part of the solution. And they think the leadership solution is a much more local one in their communities and neighborhoods.
This “reset” on the country’s economic and leadership outlook of what might be a new normal could actually benefit Obama to a small degree. If Romney tries to make too many grand promises about what he will do as president, he could be viewed as untrustworthy and a typical politician. At the same time, Obama could be hurt if he tries to make big flowery speeches about the great things he has done and what he’ll do in a second term.
It is hard for politicians not to make promises; it’s hard for each of us not to make promises to those we love and care about. But maybe it’s time for our leaders and each of us to just speak the truth in a more compassionate — but clear — way. And understand that the only way we will get through the anxiety and rough seas is as partners. And that maybe the Promised Land isn’t some Garden of Eden, but just a more simple way to live and relate to each other without all the stuff we have accumulated in our lives.
I got that sense from the lawn-chair conversations in the outskirts of the Motor City. It might be time for our leaders to follow the voters to where they are going as opposed to trying to lead them to a place and time that most people believe are now gone. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As my older brother Pat said to me this week, “For all the stuff I have bought and worked for over the last 20 years, I have come to realize it is moments that mean the most with family and friends.” Retail therapy has never really helped us, and maybe it’s time to return to real connection.