I grew up in the 50s and 60s believing in the power – and realness – of the American Dream.
To me, it meant the freedom of choice to live my life how I wanted to live it. To be rewarded for my hard work; to do better than my parent’s did; to own my home and have my own business; and a life where I could successfully balance commitments to my work and my family.
The American Dream has always been something that had great personal meaning to me, as it does for so many other Americans.
I am not alone in feeling this way. A November 2013 Washington Post-Miller Center poll found that 61% of those surveyed said that the American Dream is something that has real personal meaning to them as compared to only 19% who felt that it has no real meaning to anyone.
But last week’s CNN-ORC American Dream survey paints a troubling and, more to the point, disheartening picture. Nearly 60% of young adults ages 18-34 feel that the American Dream – however you define it – is out of reach or unattainable, with 63% saying that it’s impossible.
And a CNN snap poll showed that of 1600 respondents, two thirds felt that they hadn’t achieved the American Dream while only one third believe that they have.
These findings echo those of a February McClatchy-Marist poll, which found that Americans were very pessimistic about their chances of achieving the American Dream. Only 31% of those surveyed said that they had a good chance of improving their standard of living with hard work and dedication. And a staggering 80% reported that it takes more effort for them to get ahead than previous generations.
The pessimism is reflective of the financial realities a lot of families are facing," said Erin Currier, the director of the Economic Mobility Project at Pew Charitable Trusts. "They are treading water, but their income is not translating into solid financial security."
And therein lies the rub.
President Obama campaigned and won the presidency -- twice -- promising to help the middle class. And it is precisely that group which feels that they can’t get ahead.
According to recent polls, over 80% of Americans identify themselves as middle class. It follows that the president’s so-called agenda for the middle class should not only be helping, but also elevating the despondent mood in the country.
It is doing neither.
To be sure, there is no quick fix for an economy that was all but decimated in 2008. But there are certain things that President Obama can do to get us back on track and, in the process, revive the nation’s faith in the possibility of their own American Dream success story.
We need to hear about the revitalization of America. Clear plans to reduce income inequality, which is at its highest levels. Support for a specific energy strategy and not just opaque talk of alternative energies or wrong-headed attacks on the coal industry.
We need programs to fix youth unemployment, including empowerment zones for poor African Americans and Latinos as well as comprehensive immigration reform that will provide the 11 million immigrants who are in the country today with a path to citizenship.
Though the average American may not pay attention to the fine details of economic policy, they know as well as anyone that if we don’t have a long-term plan to balance the budget and reduce the deficit, the economy can’t grow. And if the economy isn’t growing, there aren’t new jobs and we need new jobs.
Additionally, and especially in light of the troubled rollout and early implementation of ObamaCare, we need a clear plan for entitlement reform that will save crucial programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
We also can’t underestimate the impact of our failures abroad on sentiment at home. In the last year alone we have seen an epic blunder in Syria with the President whiffing on his red line; an inability to adequately respond to a resurgent Russia and an aggressive Putin who illegally annexed Crimea just a few months ago; and failures in the East and South China Sea to contend with a headstrong China that has set its sights on regional domination to the detriment of our long standing allies like Japan.
Each of these events – and there are more I could list – have taken a toll on our nation’s spirit and sense of self.
President Obama must stop denying that we are disengaged in global politics and get us back to our rightful place as the world’s indispensible nation, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright referred to us years ago.
All of this is to say that the American Dream isn’t dead, but we have a lot of work to do before Americans will believe in it again. And there are specific, targeted actions that our legislators can take to help in that process that I have outlined here.
There is plenty of blame to throw around and the media deserves some of it for its constant focus on the negative. We need to do better at celebrating things when they go right – and there are occasions for this.
No doubt that times are tough. But they can always improve.
It follows that there is nothing more American than the American Dream and I’m never one to bet against America