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Commentary: Confusion on the real American people

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opinion Willmar, 56201
West Central Tribune
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I always love it when politicians start talking about "the American people" believing this or that, as if we all do and they know it.

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Years ago, we nicknamed my friend Francie's mother "The Nation" because she was so fond of speaking for it. Truth is, Americans do agree on a lot of fundamentals. But because we do, nobody asks about those. "The American people" generally means that at least 40 percent of the people disagree with you.

If you really want to know what people in America (there, I didn't say it) think, you can't find a smarter guy to ask than Scott Rasmussen, or a better place to look than his Rasmussen Reports, which takes America's vital signs -- and then some -- every day. The Drudge Report calls today's results "The Love/Hate Divide," but what strikes me most in the numbers is how many people don't have a clue. The honest folks.

According to Rasmussen, 33 percent of the nation's voters now strongly approve of the way that Barack Obama is performing as president, and 33 percent now strongly disapprove. Liberals are very happy.

Conservatives are very unhappy. "The American people," which is to say the folks in the middle who decide elections, are neither here nor there. Now that's profound.

But the numbers bear it out. When it comes to leadership, 51 percent give Obama good or excellent marks. But 53 percent are convinced that two key elements of the Obama plan--increases in government spending and tax cuts--hurt the economy. A whopping 58 percent (by polling standards, it's a lot) rate the economy as poor (not even fair) and think the country is on the wrong track.

If this were an election year, you'd say the incumbent is in trouble. You'd say that even though he has a lot of personal popularity, the wrong track numbers and the distrust in his economic policies expose huge vulnerabilities. It is because Obama knows this that he has the sometimes annoying (to conservatives) habit of reminding people that the reason they're suffering is not his doing but his inheritance.

But this is not a case where the question is ever going to be who started it. Or rather, if it is, it means the Democrats Are Losing. The Critical Question Is Going To Be: Did Obamanomics help or hurt? Did it save us from a deeper and longer recession, or just create a deficit for our kids to pay? Is unemployment going down or going up? If the numbers are bad, Democrats are not going to be able to save the day by saying it was George Bush who started it. Even if he did.

Will Obama's stimulus plan work? Will it turn out that he was right to bail out GM, right to save AIG? Will allowing the Bush tax cuts on the richest Americans to expire and increasing the taxes both on wealthy Americans and some small businesses raise revenue or depress the economy?

I always laugh when commentators (uniformly, I should add, untrained in economics) boldly announce that the president's plan will or won't work. How do they know? They don't--and can't. You certainly can make predictions based on theory, history or experience. But not only is much of what we are facing literally unprecedented, a major ingredient in any recovery will be consumer confidence, which is itself an amalgam of economic and non-economic influences.

As the Rasmussen Report clearly shows, "the American people" are, as usual, a lot smarter than the pundits. The liberals are happy, the conservatives are unhappy, and the people in the middle aren't sure how this movie is going to end. It's love and hate at the extremes, but in the middle, it's honest -- and legitimate --confusion.

Susan Estrich's e-mail address is sestrich@wctrib.com.

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