Orioles & Obama: Hoping for the best, but not expecting too much

With the Orioles and Yankees in a fabulous and totally unexpected race in the American League East, and with those teams playing the first of four games Thursday night in Baltimore, many in both Birdland and New York will have their minds on baseball and not President Obama's speech to the Democratic National Convention.

But it won't simply be the grand distraction of a pennant race that pulls viewers away from their television sets — or at least away from full engagement in the Obama infomercial in Charlotte.

There's something else going around this time, and to call it apathy is to demean it.

People are discouraged, and I don't mean simply the unemployed or the uninsured, the foreclosed-upon or the homeless. There are plenty of other Americans — with jobs and houses, cars and credit cards — who look at the national scene and wonder what any president can do about it.

To be sure, people still care about who occupies the Oval Office, and, in terms of ideology, there's a striking choice between Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. (Actually, before he Ryaned-up, Romney was probably more like Obama than he was different — a fine specimen of moderate who hardened his views to get his increasingly conservative party's nomination.)

Someone singularly concerned with, say, the rightward shift of the Supreme Court — especially after the Citizens United decision — could vote for Obama strictly for that reason. I've heard people over the years say court composition was why they voted. Otherwise, they didn't think a president made much of a difference, and that all presidents since Ronald Reagan, including Bill Clinton, were sellouts to capitalists and did little for the little guy.

It's not that they didn't want to. (No one would question Clinton's sincerity, right?) It's that big money trumped everything, and the charts and graphs support that gloomy view.

Since Reagan, we've seen the growth of a super-class of wealthy Americans, forming a power elite that, with a complicit Congress, grew almost completely aloof from the middle class and, certainly, low-income Americans.

In this first post-Citizens United presidential election, we're seeing that elite put on a grotesque show of money and influence through campaign donations and Super PACs — and the rest of us just watch with disgust from a distance.

Over the last 30 years, millions of U.S. jobs have been lost to globalization, and we've seen the downsizing of whole industries that used to provide a path to middle-class life.

Look at what happened to steel. Look at the dormant mills at Sparrows Point. Steel cranes for the new, improved Port of Baltimore were made in China. Steel columns in the new World Trade Center in New York City were fabricated in Luxembourg.

Then we saw the vaunted free-market economy collapse and wipe out trillions in wealth — with the geniuses who made it all happen suffering only limited consequences and many of them back in action and making plenty of money again.

We have, for the first time, a generation of young Americans who do not expect to live better than their parents did — a generation that doesn't dream so much as fret about what's next.

And, "What's next?" doesn't seem to be a question that Obama or anyone can answer.

So while I'm sure millions will turn on their televisions — or switch to network convention coverage right after the Orioles-Yankees game — many have already tuned out.

What is Obama going to do?

He and his handlers might believe that the president can beat Romney in November, but then what? Without a shift in power and a suddenly cooperative Congress, neither Obama nor Romney will be able to achieve much.

And even then — even if such a shift made passage of budgets and bills possible again — will any of that really matter, or are the forces at work in the world too big now?

Does anyone think, for instance, that there will be a "reshoring" of American manufacturing jobs with good pay and benefits, enough to make people of limited education and skills class-ascendant again?

That turnaround, if there ever is one, could take decades.

Economists and demographers predict that the U.S. poverty rate this year will hit its highest level in 50 years. Not only are the aftershocks of the Great Recession behind that trend; rising poverty is the result of a three-decade transformation of the economy, from one marked by shared prosperity to one in which the rich kept getting richer while the earnings of the middle class remained flat or fell.

Pardon these pessimistic notes. But it's particularly hard this year — more so than at any point in my voting lifetime — to get enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by presidential candidates. I have a feeling most people will be voting just to keep things from getting worse than they are.

Good thing we have baseball. Good thing we have the Orioles.


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