"Ten years ago we had Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Steve Jobs," runs a sour joke that has been doing the rounds since Silicon Valley lost its most famous son. "Now there's no cash, no hope and no jobs."
Perhaps not a contender for the Nobel Prize in side-splitters, but it catches America's dark mood -- a year to the day before the country delivers its verdict on whether Barack Obama merits a second term in the White House.
Before every presidential election, there is talk that this one will be historic, a "watershed" to match the two that truly qualified for that title during the previous century: 1932, which ushered in Franklin Roosevelt and five decades of Democratic domination, and the Reagan landslide of 1980 that made official a conservative shift in national politics that continues to this day.
The year 2008 was supposed to be another new beginning -- not just in terms of the colour of the victor's skin, but in the vista of change, youth and renewal that seemed to open up, despite the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression that swept FDR into the Oval Office. But things didn't quite work out that way.
Great hopes can breed great anticlimaxes, and so it has been with Obama. The shining promise has not been fulfilled, at least not yet: in part because of his own inexperience (he had served barely two years in the Senate when he announced his candidacy in 2007); in part because of the singular bloody-mindedness of his Republican opponents; but above all because of an economic crisis that has proved deeper and more intractable than almost anyone expected.
The numerical truth was laid out last week in the latest forecasts from the Federal Reserve, the country's central bank. Growth for the next three years is unlikely to exceed 2.5 percent -- respectable by Euro-sclerotic standards, but barely enough to keep pace with a growing workforce. Even assuming a double-dip recession is avoided, unemployment will still be close to 9 percent when the election comes around, and by late 2014 will probably still exceed 7 percent. And that improvement may well reflect an increase not in the overall number of jobs available, but in the number of Americans who have given up looking for work. Remember, too, that no president since Roosevelt has been re-elected when the unemployment rate was above 7.2 percent.
But figures tell only a fraction of the story. They cannot express the pervasive sense of decline, the feeling that this crisis is not just a blip, but a permanent inflection of the graph of national well-being. As long as the economy was broadly on the up, the injustices and shortcomings of the system were masked.
Worrying signs -- increasing budget deficits, growing personal debt and a stagnation in middle-class incomes -- have been around for more than a decade. But the Great Recession has brought them into glaring view, and may inspire America's voters into a revolution of their own. Frustration and anger are today's dominant emotions. You can measure them in the ascent of the Tea Party movement on the right, and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement on the left. Ideologically, the pair are at opposite ends of the spectrum -- the former seeing government as the source of every ill, the latter demanding that government stamp out the iniquities of capitalism run amok.
Compared with the OWS, the Tea Party is a relatively organised political force that now drives the Republican Party. But in a way they are two sides of the same coin. Both are exasperated with the status quo. Both loathe a system where money rules, where politicians are in the pockets of their financial contributors, and
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