About three-quarters of Americans, according to surveys, think the country is on the wrong track. About two-thirds of the public disapprove of the job performance of President Bush, and an even higher number disdain Congress. The media are excited about the prospect of a wealthy businessman running for President as an independent who could tap into broad public disgruntlement with the partisan politicians in Washington.
2007? Yes. But also 1992. The main difference between the two situations is that Michael Bloomberg is richer--and saner--than Ross Perot. But one similarity might be this: the American people were wrong then and may be wrong now. The widespread pessimism in the early 1990s about the course of the country turned out to be unwarranted. The rest of the decade featured impressive economic growth, a falling crime rate, successful reform of the welfare system and a reasonably peaceful world. Perhaps the problems weren't so bad in the first place, or perhaps the political system produced politicians, like Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, who were able to deal with the problems. But, in any case, the country got back on course.
That's not to say all was well in the 1990s, especially in foreign policy. Responsibilities in places ranging from Bosnia to Rwanda to Afghanistan were shirked, and gathering dangers weren't dealt with. Still, the sour complaints and dire prognoses of 1992--oh, my God, the budget deficit will do us in!--were quickly overtaken by events. What's more, the fear of many conservatives that we might be at the mercy of unstoppable forces of social disintegration turned out to be wrong. Indeed, the dire predictions were rendered obsolete so quickly that one wonders whether we were, in 1992, really just wallowing in some kind of post-cold-war-victory tristesse. Sometimes the public mood is ... well, moody.
Today we're moody again. We are obviously fighting a difficult and, until recently, badly managed war in Iraq, whose outcome is uncertain. This accounts for much of the pessimism. It also doesn't help that the political system seems incapable of dealing with big problems like immigration, an energy policy and health care. Still, is the general feeling that everything is going to the dogs any more justified today than it was 15 years ago?
Not really. Think of it this way: Have events in general gone better or worse than most people would have predicted on Sept. 12, 2001? There's been no successful second attack here in the U.S.--and very limited terrorist successes in Europe or even in the Middle East. We've had 5 1/2 years of robust economic growth, low unemployment and a stock-market recovery. Social indicators in the U.S. are mostly stable or improving--abortions, teenage births and teenage drug use are down and education scores are up a bit. It may well be that no other country has ever been stronger than the U.S. today--and it may well be that no other people in human history have ever had it quite so good.
As for American foreign policy since 9/11, it has not produced the results some of us hoped for, and there are many legitimate criticisms of the Bush Administration's performance. But, in fact, despite the gloom and doom from critics left and right (including, occasionally, me), the world seems to present the usual mixed bag of difficult problems and heartening developments. In Latin America, there's Hugo Chávez eroding democracy in Venezuela--but there's also pretty good news from the democracies in Mexico and Brazil. In Europe, the U.S. fares badly in public opinion polls--but the people of Germany and France have elected the relatively pro-American Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, clear improvements over their predecessors. The democracies of East Asia--especially Japan and India--are strong and prosperous, with deepening ties to the U.S., while the ambitions of China (for now, at least) seem muted.
The key question, of course, is the fate of Iraq. A decent outcome--the defeat of al-Qaeda in what it has made the central front in the war on terrorism and enough security so there can be peaceful rule by a representative regime--seems to me achievable, if we don't lose our nerve here at home. With success in Iraq, progress elsewhere in the Middle East will be easier. The balance sheet is uncertain. But it is by no means necessarily grim.
Why are we subject to periodic bouts of distemper? Is it a deep problem with modern democracy? Is it an even deeper problem with human nature? Or do we just have a tendency to get sick of Presidents named Bush? We don't know. The fact is that George W. Bush can probably do little to change the national mood--or the national judgment of him--over the next 18 months. For our part, however, we can hope that future historians look back on our adolescent moodiness of 2007 with as much puzzlement as some college students showed recently when I tried to explain to them just how it was that Perot got all those votes 15 years ago.