Where will 'mad as hell' lead us?

There's no doubt that if fiction were fact, the most popular figure in this year's midterm congressional election cycle would be Howard Beale, the crazed television anchorman of the 1976 movie "Network."

Actor Peter Finch's distraught screed, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore," is a perfect-pitch battle cry of today's tea party movement and the Republican congressional leadership.

While they may disagree on specific targets and details, both are embodiments of the national discontent with the way things are going in Washington, and in the Obama administration in particular. Windows may not be flying open all over the country to air the same lament, as happened in the movie, but there can be no doubt the natives are plenty restless.

Howard Beale rallied his audience into a frenzy with a generalized and repeated rant heavy on emotion and light on substance. The current sound and fury against the establishment has been much the same.

The movie's wail of frustration hit a raw nerve in the public 34 years ago. The country's disfavor today is being fanned more by empty sloganeering from tea partyites and right-wing zealots about the loss of "liberty" and "freedom" at the hands of an army of "bureaucrats" and "socialists" bent on destroying "our way of life."

Republicans generally have hammered their intellectual argument against the mounting deficit and an overblown federal government. But the one concrete target that reflects real pain on Main Street and resonates beyond is the national jobless rate of 9.6 percent.

As for the GOP congressional leaders, they are content with issuing a "Pledge to America" of tired bromides that has met with little vocal support in the party ranks. They are showing no inclination to stray from the lockstep obstructionism that has so conspicuously marked their strategy in the nearly two years of the Obama administration.

Anticipating the takeover of one or both houses of Congress on Nov. 2, they say things will be different thereafter. But unless an electoral tidal wave sweeps the Democrats into severe minority impotence, the likely outcome is more gridlock. The Dems will dig in to preserve and protect the achievements of the first Obama years and could throw up obstructionism of their own against any major Republican legislative schemes.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama continues to defend his first-term successes on health care and financial reform, his efforts to pull the country out of the Great Recession and to avert a deeper one.

With little apparent result in reminding the country who left the economic mess on his doorstep, he is busy now selling the virtues of long-term goals such as clean energy and education reform. But as long as unemployment remains high, voters' eyes inevitably are on the unsatisfactory short term.

At a fundraising dinner in Rockville the other night, Mr. Obama acknowledged the problem, saying: "[I]t's not easy for elected officials to think long term. And yet, because of the challenges we face, because of the emergency situation we were in, that's what we saw a whole bunch of legislators do."

As for the huge federal deficit, about which the tea partiers and the Republican are so concerned, he said: "We've still got to get control of our deficit in a serious way. And that's going to require more than just platitudes; it's going to require tough choices. And the question is going to be, do we have people in place who are making those choices not based on what's politically expedient or what special interests are lobbying for, but rather what's good for America over the long term."

He went on: "[I]n a town like Washington where, everybody is watching the polls day to day, [where] everybody is obsessed with sort of short-term thinking, I try to explain, we're just in the first quarter. We've got a big chunk of the game left to play."

More accurately, in football terms, the president is approaching halftime, unless he's already counting on a second term. And what happens in the short term, over the next two years, will likely determine whether he'll have another four.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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