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opinion | tom keane

In the dumps with the American Dream

We used to be ambitious and enthusiastic; now the new normal is malaise. Shouldn’t we strive for more?

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In 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter told the nation he had detected a malaise in America, “a crisis of confidence ... that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” That malaise arguably lost him reelection, with candidate Ronald Reagan forcefully rejecting the notion that America’s best days were behind it. Reagan’s optimism bested Carter’s pessimism.

Might the same storyline play out again this year?

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It’s not President Barack Obama claiming malaise. Politicians have learned well the lesson from Carter’s loss: Voters will blame leaders, not themselves, for such talk. Nevertheless, as suggested by a fascinating recent poll from Anderson Robbins Research, the Great Recession of 2008 has exacted a terrible cost on the country, one measured by Americans’ feelings of confidence and hope. Anderson Robbins calls it the “New Normal”: a dramatic resetting of our sense of what, exactly, is the American Dream.

The national survey, conducted this spring and commissioned by local communications firm Solomon & McCown, asked what respondents thought were the most important elements of the American Dream. Where once economic success and upward mobility would have ranked high, they ranked last in the poll. Respondents said they increasingly valued things such as good marriages (83 percent) and “a long and healthy retirement” (77 percent).

In other words, we just want to be happy.

And what’s wrong with that, you may ask? Nothing, really. It feels very European, a kind of inward-turning mindset where people get out of the rat race and focus on being content. But, to be blunt, America historically never was about being happy. For us, it’s been “the pursuit of happiness,” a phrase that is all about striving, not attaining. The American Dream required ambition and taking risks; it was about fame, fortune, and making things better for the next generation. No more, it seems. We’re all a bit frightened and ready to hunker down.

One can easily understand why. The 2008 recession was unlike any since the Great Depression. Vast amounts of wealth were lost, including homes and retirement accounts. And despite Herculean federal spending — and predictions of a much quicker turnaround — the recession’s effects have lingered. Unemployment and underemployment remain high; many people have simply given up, dropping out of the workforce altogether. Fifty-five percent of Americans feel personally scarred by the recession: 41 percent in Anderson Robbins’s survey say they “still have a ways to go,” while 14 percent say they may never recover. Indeed, the pollsters found that in general Americans now feel more “thrifty,” “determined,” and “worried.” Perhaps not surprisingly, we also feel a lot less “hopeful,” “charitable,” and “lucky.” Most profoundly, fully 59 percent believe that the next generation of Americans will have even fewer opportunities for achieving the American Dream.

The New Normal sounds like malaise to me.

One sees, perhaps, an opportunity for Mitt Romney. Pulling a page from the 1980 election, Romney might well seize upon Americans’ new-found gloom and blame it on the incumbent. “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” was Reagan’s famous question, and one suspects that the answer to that question today would also be negative. If Romney could convey an attitude as buoyantly upbeat as Reagan’s, he might well capture the votes of those distressed at this new version of the American Dream.

On the other hand, where in 1980 the impression of America’s place in the world was defined by the ignominy of the Iranian hostage crisis, Obama can point to dramatic successes such as the killing of Osama bin Laden. Moreover, much of the power of the American Dream resonates not for those who already have done well, but for those at society’s margins. That includes immigrants, gays, minorities, and even women — and Obama seems rhetorically far more in their corner than does Romney (and especially the version of Romney one saw during the primaries).

Of course, all of this assumes that Americans really don’t want the “New Normal.” I hope they don’t. Europe is a pleasant but dull place. I’d rather the excitement, spirit and — yes — frustration of the old American Dream than a timid world where we’re all just grateful to get by.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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