The audacity of nope

OBAMA'S PLAN: "You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything." (Charles Dharapak/associated Press)
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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The state of the union is obstreperous. Dyspepsia is the new equilibrium. All the passion in American politics is oppositional. The American people know what they don't like, which is: everything.

That sounds like nihilism, but they're against that, too.

Consider the poll last week by The Washington Post and ABC News. People were asked a standard question about how much confidence they had in President Obama to "make the right decisions" for the nation's future. A majority -- 53 percent -- gave the two most dismal of the four possible responses: "just some" and "none at all." The same question had been asked a year earlier; in just 12 months, the "none at all" camp had tripled, from 9 percent to 27 percent.

We are at a strange moment: a crescendo in American anger even as the man in the White House hums along in a state of preternatural equanimity. Obama, who will take over prime-time television Wednesday night for his annual address to Congress, has seen such a drastic erosion of popularity that he may get only about 35 or 40 standing ovations instead of the usual 50 or so.

Lawmakers will feel some kinship with the president, because they're all getting pummeled by the public. Democrats in Congress did worse than Obama in the Post-ABC poll, and Republicans in Congress did worst of all. The health-care bill that lawmakers have labored on for the past year has gotten a national thumbs-down: According to a new USA Today/Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans want Congress to suspend work on the current health-care bills and start over.

And that $787 billion stimulus package? No, thanks. In a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 56 percent of those surveyed said they oppose the government's effort to juice the economy.

"You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything," Obama said at a town hall gathering in Ohio last week. "That's how you do it. You don't offend anybody. I'd have real high poll numbers. All of Washington would be saying, 'What a genius.' "

The Againstness Epidemic has been years in the making. Individual strains of opposition have been cultivated in the petri dishes of special interest groups, religious fundamentalists, blogs, cable TV shows, talk radio, fringe subcultures (birthers, truthers, tea partiers). They feed into, and are fed by, entrenched industries of disagreeableness (fossil fuel companies, labor unions, the Chamber of Commerce, Rush Limbaugh). We live in a country in which being contrarian now means advocating a mainstream initiative.

The orthodox view among pundits is that Americans have lost faith in government. That argument masks a deeper truth: Americans have also lost faith in pundits.

Also in orthodox views.

In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama imagined a new path forward, one in which partisans would overcome their differences, suppress their rancor and work together to achieve wonderful things:

"[I]t's precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country. . . . What's needed is a broad majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans and independents of goodwill -- who are reengaged in the project of national renewal, and who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others."

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