The unease -- Obama uses the word "anxiety" to describe the feeling earlier in the speech (here's the full text of his remarks) -- that the president identifies is, to my mind, one of the most critical elements of understanding the American electorate (and the American people) at this point in our history. The Cold War is over. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- began a new era in how the United States interacts (and doesn't) with the world. The economic collapse in the 2000s -- and the subsequent evidence of Wall Street's blind greed -- changed how people view the financial world. The child abuse scandal that engulfed the Catholic Church in the late 1990s and through much of the early 2000s caused a rethinking of religion and its role in society. Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath caused an examination of what government can and should do for people. And overarching all of it is our increased technological capacity to be constantly in contact with one another -- at both superficial and deeply personal levels.
All of those things have combined to create a deep uncertainty among the public about who/what they can trust or rely on. And, increasingly, the answer to that question is no one. Check out this Gallup poll from June.
Only three institutions -- the military, small business and the police -- were trusted either a "great deal" or "quite a lot" by a majority of Americans. And, yes, approval of Congress and the presidency are in the gutter per usual, but confidence in the Supreme Court is at or near its all-time lows too. That lack of trust in the longtime institutional pillars of our society leaves people feeling even more at sea -- adrift from the way things used to work but unable to see the shore on which the future lies.
Politics has reflected that uncertainty. The early part of the 2000s were dominated by George W. Bush and his compassionate conservatism. In the wake of the 2004 election, Republicans had begun to openly ponder the idea of an enduring majority in the House and Senate built around their policy prescriptions. Then came the 2006 wave election for Democrats. That was followed by the election of Barack Obama, a moment heralded by many Democrats -- and even some independents and Republicans -- as a seminal pivot point in the country's history. Then 2010 happened with Republicans picking up 63 seats and control of the House. In 2012, the country reelected Obama convincingly. This November, signs point to Republican gains.
What to make of all the back and forth? Confusion. The public knows it's not getting what it wants from its politics. But it has very little idea what exactly it does want -- which puts politicians in something very close to an impossible position.
All of which brings us back to Obama's point. We are in a sort of transition phase societally. The public is deeply skeptical of society's longstanding institutions, but that skepticism hasn't been replaced by any surety with an alternate set of beliefs or institutions. Which makes the dominant feeling one of considerable unrest, unease and anxiety.