A Prince George's County state senator says the Wall Street bailout came up a lot last weekend at the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Department's fall bazaar. People were wondering why they weren't getting bailed out.
Some just shrugged. What'd you expect? they said. Sen. Jim Rosapepe sympathized but heard a disturbing sense of resignation in some responses.
The government's assertion that Main Street was, in fact, Wall Street came across like the old joke: We're from the government and we're here to help you. Yeah, right, people said.
Government and political leaders have always had to cope with a wary electorate, but the level of doubt may have risen in recent years. After Hurricane Katrina, after the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, after years of toxic antipathy between the parties - and after a deregulated financial system sent the world toward a possible depression - trust in government is at a low ebb.
It matters. Some modicum of faith is necessary for the country to make it through trying times.
"We have an automatic reflex: Political leaders don't tell us the truth. So when it's important and true, we don't respond," says Laslo Boyd, an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore.
The bailout saga supports his view. And its timing made mistrust an even more important dynamic. President Bush is held in such low regard that "1-20-2009" appears on the bumpers of many cars, and no one needs to explain.
Mr. Bush is the lamest of ducks at a moment when the nation needs a leader like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or even Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. Instead, we have Mr. Bush and the green-eyeshade guys: Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke - estimable gentlemen, to be sure, but not exactly the charisma twins.
The House and Senate eventually passed the rescue legislation after sweeteners were added. Now, with the potential for more financial pain and uncertainty, political leaders are challenged to find new ways to build support. No one wants a world in which leaders are heard only after calamity proves their concerns were well founded.
The trust issue remains at every level of government. Who believes it when Gov. Martin O'Malley (or any of his predecessors) says he's tried to manage budget gaps by cutting the cost of government?
Similarly, few believe it when you say taxes have been reduced. The General Assembly and the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening lowered the state income tax by 10 percent in the 1990s. The cut was made over several years, so it was hardly noticeable. Also, because wages have hardly risen for the middle class in recent years, no one felt much relief. Tax cuts for the wealthy at the national level have redoubled the feeling that high-rollers are the only ones who matter.
Though governed for decades by Democrats, Maryland is a very fiscally responsible state that must, by law, balance its budget every year. Many just don't believe it. And they're not ready in the current crisis to accept the solutions.
"People can't understand that when they lose their house, it's their problem," says Senator Rosapepe, "but when a bank loses its collateral, that's also their problem."
But he does not think specific issues of that kind signal a fundamental loss of faith in leadership. "It's not that the public doesn't trust anyone," he says. "It's that people don't trust George Bush. I think it will be different by a mile six weeks from now, when Barack Obama or even John McCain is president-elect."
Maryland, in particular, has seen breathtaking losses of faith in politicians before. In the 1970s, a Marylander who was vice president of the United States, Spiro T. Agnew, was forced to resign to avoid criminal charges; a governor, Marvin Mandel, served 20 months in federal prison for political corruption (although the conviction was later overturned); and an assortment of local officials went to jail.
The state survived. Voters demanded change and found new leaders who served well and honorably. Something similar may be going on now at the national level. A new president is about to be elected, and last week, reacting to angry constituent mail, Congress passed a bailout bill at least somewhat more helpful to Main Street.
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.