WASHINGTON — America’s vaunted can-do spirit is badly frayed.
From the Gulf oil spill to the war in Afghanistan, from lost jobs to soaring budget deficits, cascading crises are defying easy resolution and undermining faith in the future.
Take the oil gushing for more than six weeks from a broken well into the Gulf of Mexico despite all efforts to stop it.
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That gusher, which can be seen around the clock on live video feeds from the ocean floor, stands as a vivid image of the limits of modern technology and governance. We can fly through space and walk on the moon but cannot stop a crude oil leak that has grown into the nation’s worst environmental catastrophe.
Then there is the economy. Many months after the recession was said to have been over, Friday’s jobless figures showed the nation still in the grip of frighteningly high unemployment despite Obama administration insistence that no problem is getting more attention.
Abroad, the United States still has not defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan after almost 10 years of trying. The government seems unable to slow the nuclear march of either Iran or North Korea. And efforts to broker peace in the Middle East keep slipping away despite decades of work.
These are not just problems for President Barack Obama. But as the nation’s leader, he is taking the most heat.
“He’s certainly moved from seeming to walk on water to really slogging in the mud, the oil-filled mud if you will,” said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University presidential scholar. “He is hitting a lot of existential obstacles — things that are out there and that are intractable.”
For now, the disaster at the top of the list is the oil still spewing from the blown BP well. It is hitting more shores, and now coating birds, as shown in sickeningly vivid photos.
Obama visited the Gulf Coast on Friday for a third time since the April 20 blowout and fire on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers.The company said it was diverting some oil up a pipe from a cap it placed on the well but it was not yet clear how much. Obama cited signs of apparent progress but said it is “way to early to be optimistic” about BP’s latest attempt.
The nation’s worst oil spill has the president on the defensive as he repeatedly insists that he and his administration have been fully engaged from the start. But it is a double-edged message, since Obama also wants it clear that the spill is BP’s fault and is the London-based oil giant’s responsibility to bring under control.
Obama understands the nation’s frustration and says he shares it.
“I would love to just spend a lot of my time venting and yelling at people. But that’s not the job I was hired to do. My job is to solve this problem, and ultimately this isn’t about me and how angry I am,” he told CNN’s Larry King.
A recent Gallup poll found that more than half those surveyed thought Obama was handling the crisis poorly. With the spill threatening to undermine his presidency, Obama abruptly scrapped a trip to Indonesia and Australia for the second time this year to focus on the crisis at home.
It is hardly just about Obama. Many Americans, and people in other developed countries, too, have become accustomed to believing that technology and smart thinking can bring manmade calamities under control and help guide a nation’s destiny.
Yet, both domestically and internationally, little the United States has tried lately seems to be working.
Pocketbook problems seem unceasing, in the face of enormous efforts to get the economy moving.
Friday’s Labor Department report said payrolls rose by 431,000 jobs in May. But all but about 40,000 of them were temporary Census Bureau positions, and some 125,000 new jobs are needed each month just to keep pace with new entrants into the labor force. Thirteen million new ones will be needed to bring the jobless rate down to pre-recession rates of around 6 percent, and economists do not expect that for years — perhaps late 2013, at the earliest.
“We dug ourselves a very deep hole,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com.
The nation may have technically survived the Great Recession, but the stubbornly high jobless rate and worries about Europe’s economy are fueling fears of another recession. Meanwhile, the government’s budget deficit is soaring to near-Greek proportions, with no good plan to get it under control.
“Greater realism is needed about U.S. budget challenges as the recovery continues, or America will join Europe down the proverbial drain of financial self-abuse,” said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Stocks in the United States plunged after Friday’s weak jobs report and fears of a financial meltdown in Hungary, with the Dow industrials closing down 324 points.
The overseas picture is no brighter away from Europe.
Last week’s botched Israeli naval commando raid on Turkish-flagged aid ships bound for the Gaza Strip appeared to dampen expectations of any breakthrough in stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The international condemnation of Israel that followed the bloody raid also further complicates U.S. efforts against Iran’s nuclear program.
Likewise, the conclusion by international investigators blaming the sinking of a South Korean warship on a torpedo from a North Korean submarine, and the resulting increase in tensions on the Korean Peninsula, make it even less likely that the North will agree to return to six-nation talks to limit its nuclear program.
“Things are bad, getting worse,” said Doug Schoen, a Democratic strategist who was a pollster for former President Bill Clinton.
Schoen said the weight of big crises, plus smaller political controversies — Did the Obama administration offer possible jobs to Senate candidates in Pennsylvania and Colorado to tempt them to drop challenges to White House-favored candidates? — can shake public confidence in Obama.
“On each and every problem we are facing, he and his administration have been found wanting and have yet to meet the challenge that they themselves said they were prepared to take on,” Schoen said.
The White House of course sees it differently and views the oil spill as the immediate major challenge.
“I think we’re going to be judged and the president will be judged on our response and our recovery efforts to what we all know now is the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. “But pounding on a podium isn’t going to fix a hole in the ocean.”