Trying to figure out what Americans want

I received a letter the other day from a woman who said she had voted for Barack Obama in 2008, "but after what he and the Democrats have done to our country, I will never again vote for any Democrat. ... If the Republicans are elected into power and don't keep their word about what they say they will do, they will be voted out in 2012."

If I follow this correctly, there are three things going on here:

1. This American has given Mr. Obama and the Democrats 21 months to fix the long list of things that were going wrong by the end of the Bush administration, midst the most profound economic collapse since the Great Depression.

2. This American thinks Mr. Obama and the Democrats have gone out of their way to make matters worse: "What he and the Democrats have done to our country."

3. This American thinks Republicans again deserve majority power to cut government spending and reduce the national budget deficit. But didn't they promise that before? And didn't George W. Bush leave office with a near-record deficit of $482 billion?

I get comments like these all the time, mostly from angry, suburban men in the so-called "real America" who despise Mr. Obama and ridicule his Obamacare as a giveaway to minorities and immigrants and as an intrusion on the right to be sick while having the rest of us pay your medical bills.

This letter, on the other hand, came from a woman. Why she turned so quickly against Mr. Obama is a mystery; she broke off communications after I challenged her a bit in an e-mail with some factual perspective. "I can see we will never agree," she wrote.

I understand being frustrated, especially if you've lost your job or your house in this recession (the letter-writer did not indicate that either was the case) — and we're all impatient with the pace of economic recovery.

But I feel like asking: What do you want, lady? What's your plan to govern?

Since the Republicans are essentially promising to do nothing more than continue all the Bush-era tax cuts and to repeal the expansion of health care, do you think that will fix anything? Do you really think it was unwise to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed, or to attack the problem of Americans without health insurance, or to rescue failing financial institutions and car manufacturers?

The Democrats are afraid to talk about the effectiveness of the Trouble Asset Relief Program because they think most Americans hate the thing as a $700 billion bailout for the institutions that caused the economic meltdown. "It wasn't fair," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner conceded recently, according to The Washington Post. "But it was necessary."

Necessary to avoid a full-scale depression.

For those who might have missed it, the TARP money that went into Wall Street is coming back to taxpayers, and the estimated cost of the program has decreased steadily. Taxpayers recently earned a $1.02 billion profit from the sale of a stake in Citigroup, according to Bloomberg News. Last week, AIG rolled out a plan to repay the billions it received from the government. The Congressional Budget Office put the price tag for TARP at $66 billion — a fraction of what Presidents Bush and Obama sought for it — and if the AIG plan works out, Mr. Geithner predicted that the final cost would be more like $50 billion.

Chrysler and GM, also recipients of government bailouts, last week reported some good news. Domestic sales of new GM vehicles in September increased 12 percent, while Chrysler sales rose 61 percent over the same month a year ago.

Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average last month recorded its best September since 1939, according to numerous analysts.

Of course, the tea party will continue to beef about all this, claiming that bailouts are un-American and that no private enterprise should be considered "too big to fail." They are clueless to the consequences had the banks and carmakers been allowed to collapse altogether. And I guarantee that many of the same people would have been calling for heads had the Obama administration taken no action.

People like the letter-writer I mentioned at the start don't know what they want. And a lot of others just seem plain angry about something — that Barack Obama is president, that the country isn't what it used to be, that their wages have been stagnant. But, as New York City Michael Bloomberg says, anger is not a way to govern.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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