Trust is still a problem

After assuming office with most of the country and even the world wishing him well, President Barack Obama is finding that governing in tough times is not much fun. For one reason, Americans no longer trust the country’s big institutions.

Obama confided that worry about the economic crisis is interfering with his sleep. On a day he gave interviews to five network news anchors about the stimulus package on Capitol Hill, he and Michelle Obama fled to a schoolroom for some diversion with second graders. He often looks tired, which he rarely did even after long days and nights of campaigning.

At one time he would have laughed off entertainer Rush Limbaugh’s impassioned, silly, on-air diatribe "I hope he (Obama) fails.” Not now as the White House paid a grim attention to the bombast.

Many pundits are urging Obama to spend more time telling folks how dire the economic situation is. But that’s not the problem. Everyone I know realizes this is the grimmest economy they’ve ever witnessed except for the Depression. Many think were on the verge of another one.

The problem is that Americans are not confident their political, business and economic leaders will get us out of this mess. And the continued, old-style bickering between Republicans and Democrats is confirming their anger, doubt, fear and pessimism.

The damage done by the Wall Street bandits who begged for federal bailouts and then gave themselves obscene bonuses is incalculable. The smartest move Obama made was to let his anger and frustration at such greed and stupidity show. Those who are appalled at the idea of the government capping compensation at $500,000 may have a philosophical point that this is not the right job for bureaucrats, but only a few really care. It may be true that smart business people who don’t get bonuses will leave. On the other hand, where will they go?

The newspapers are full of unfairness and anxiety and stories of people losing nearly everything — jobs, health care, pensions, retirement savings and homes. People who played by the rules, worked hard and saved are stunned to find the rules stopped working. Just when they need unemployment insurance, the system is breaking down. Just when they need mass transit, its being cut back. Just when they need job retraining, it is disappearing.

Hard to blame them for putting no trust in Washington, no trust in banks, no trust in the stock market, no trust in their employers.

On the other hand, this being America, they have not lost trust in themselves or in each other. Resilient people are risking all to start new businesses. They are banding together to form co-ops. They are bartering their skills for what they need. They are saving their money and spending more wisely. And most, somehow, are getting by.

When a family with triplets lost their house to a fire caused by defective electrical wire the other day, neighbors were there to help. When ice and snow isolated families, others plowed through to help. When the pantries were bare for families who lost their livelihood, food was delivered.

The stimulus bill pending on Capitol Hill is neither as bad as Republicans declare it is nor as strong and bold as Obama and Democrats insist it is. But the economic situation is now so serious that there is no alternative but to pass something.

We need reasons to trust again. We need some encouragement that the country will get back on track. We have to see some signs of hope and evidence that at least some of the old ways work.

Everybody knows we won’t get out of this mess anytime soon. But most of us trust that eventually the economy will start growing again. We have to hope that Obama and Congress and business leaders will settle down and make that happen. Secretly, so do Rush’s 20 million listeners.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail