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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Trapped in a pandemic funk: Millions of Americans can’t shake a gloomy outlook

Despite many signals that things are improving, many Americans seem stuck in a pandemic hangover of pessimism.

By: New York Times | New Delhi |
Updated: November 6, 2021 1:42:10 pm
Despite many signals that things are improving — the stock market is hitting record highs; hiring is accelerating sharply, with 531,000 jobs added in October; workers are earning more. (Representational: AP)

Written by Jack Healy, Audra DS Burch and Patricia Mazzei

A year ago, Michael Macey, a barber who lives in the suburbs outside Atlanta, was thrilled to help propel President Joe Biden to victory, hopeful that Democrats would move swiftly to tackle policing laws and other big issues. But then he watched his hopes for sweeping changes wither in Washington.

Now, Macey’s sense of optimism — like that of millions of Americans — has been dashed. By the pain of an unending pandemic. By rising prices. By nationwide bickering that stretches from school board meetings to the US Capitol.

“I don’t like the division,” Macey, 63, said. “I don’t like the standstill. We need something to get accomplished.”

For so many voters in this November of discontent, the state of the union is just … blech.

Despite many signals that things are improving — the stock market is hitting record highs; hiring is accelerating sharply, with 531,000 jobs added in October; workers are earning more; and Covid hospitalisations and deaths are dropping from their autumn peaks — many Americans seem stuck in a pandemic hangover of pessimism.

More than 60% of voters in opinion surveys say that the country is heading in the wrong direction — a national funk that has pummeled Biden’s approval ratings and fueled a backlash against Democrats that could cost them control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections.

In more than two dozen interviews across the country, voters ticked off a snowballing list of grievances that had undercut their faith in a president who ran on a pledge of normalcy and competence: The chaotic, deadly pullout from Afghanistan. A spike in migrants crossing the southern border. A legislative agenda stymied by Republican opposition and Democratic infighting.

The complaints are not just coming from conservatives. Voters who supported Biden said they had grown dispirited about his ability to muscle through campaign pledges to address climate change, voting rights and economic fairness while also confronting rising prices and other disruptions to daily life exacerbated by the pandemic.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Daniel Sanchez, who lost his teaching contract at a community college in suburban Phoenix when enrollment plunged during the pandemic. Now, he is making minimum wage at an organic market and searching for full-time teaching work.

Sanchez, 36, said he still supported Biden, echoing many Democratic voters who said they believed the president was being unfairly blamed by Republicans and the news media for problems beyond his control, such as the price of gasoline or Covid spikes among Americans who refuse to get vaccinated.

But Sanchez has grown exasperated with the endless melodrama in Washington as a Democratic effort to confront climate change and strengthen the social safety net has stalled amid intraparty disputes. He is particularly frustrated with two moderate Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sanchez’s own senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

“It seems like the answers are right in front of them, and people are willing to do nothing about it,” he said.

Biden came into office vowing to “build back better.” But voters said little was getting built as Democrats fight over multitrillion-dollar measures to strengthen the country’s social safety net and improve physical infrastructure. Normal life was not back, and might never be. And voters said so many things just felt worse.

It is not just the federal government they blame. Trash is piling up on city streets because of a dearth of garbage haulers. School bus services are being canceled and delayed for want of drivers. Americans who have been hurt economically by the pandemic are still struggling to get rental assistance and unemployment benefits, sometimes months after applying.

“Our political system — it’s almost completely a failure,” said Carla Haney, a 65-year-old swimming instructor who has yet to receive about 14 weeks of unemployment benefits from the state of Florida that she applied for in May 2020. “I don’t see it getting better at all.”

With the global supply chain gummed up, voters around the Phoenix metro area said they were paying the price in lost money and wasted time. A restaurant chef in Phoenix is once again struggling to buy paper plates and napkins. A plumbing supplier in Tempe is losing commissions because he cannot fill orders.

And at gas stations across the country, drivers cringe at paying an average of $3.40 a gallon — prices that have risen by more than $1 a gallon from a year ago.

“Everything goes up, and pay pretty much stays the same,” said Brandon Hendrix, 39, of Athens, Georgia, who works in security for an auto plant.

Even with the unemployment rate at 4.6%, falling but still above its pre-pandemic levels, Hendrix said job security is not his top concern. Instead, it is the increases in prices for “gas, grocery stores, rent — just about everything you can think of” that worry him. Still, he blames much of the country’s grim state on the pandemic, Republicans’ obstruction and relentless criticism of the Biden administration.

“They instigated too much division,” Hendrix said of Republicans. “Basically, they’ve kind of boiled it down to politics and power play. They’re not really solving issues. They’re just keeping you divided so they can do whatever they want.”

Worries around trash piling up, flights canceled because of staff shortages and rising grocery prices may be small compared with a global pandemic that has killed 5 million people, or a fast-warming climate that has contributed to floods inundating towns and wildfires burning the American West. But they are stuck like pebbles in voters’ shoes: Tiny, but impossible to ignore.

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