Reaching a boiling point

Published 7:43 am Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Grocery shopping on a day with temperatures bobbing into the 90s and the air thick with humidity is ordinarily out of the question. Nevertheless, the bare refrigerator coupled with my outspoken stomach had outmatched good sense. Having filled my cart and lingered a bit longer in the cold sting of the freezer section, I made my way to the front of the store where a line of carts stood waiting for the single open register. There I found myself last Monday making small talk with the man in line ahead of me.

We talked pleasantly about the mixed emotions of moving his first daughter into James Madison University and the drive from his North Carolina hometown where he retired after 25 years in the military. He told me about his plans for the barbecue reunion that evening with old Navy friends and we swapped tips on the perfect burger ingredients. As he swiped his debit card he turned back to me. “What do you do?” he asked.

“I am a congressman,” I replied.

His eyebrows rose slightly, and I could see a couple horizontal wrinkles appear across his forehead. The cheerful tone of our conversation evaporated and his face displayed the intense consideration of his next words. I knew where the exchange was headed.

“Huh. OK. Well, good to meet you,” he said as he shook my hand. I stood in surprise as he turned, took his receipt from the cashier and pushed his cart toward the sliding glass doors disappearing into the piercing midday sun.

Minutes later as I approached my car though I noticed a folded note pinned under the blade of my windshield wiper. Anger and frustration was palpable in a thick scrawl of the hurried block letters: “YOU PEOPLE IN WASHINGTON ARE DESTROYING OUR NATION. STOP TRYING TO TAKEOVER MY HEALTH CARE!!”

Americans will put up with a lot. In large part we tolerate government ineptitude, we stomach bureaucratic waste, we shake our heads at scandals, we hold our noses at political posturing and we put up with belated, incomplete, and sometimes even poor leadership. We expect Washington to be underwhelming.

But recently anger and frustration at Washington has weighed like a thick film across America. As spring gave way to summer, dissatisfaction has boiled over into open protest. Last week the administration released its annual mid-session budget review; Washington will spend $30,958 per household, tax $17,576 per household and borrow $13,392 per household this year. Americans are sickened that this unbelievable spending will cause our nation to run its first ever trillion-dollar budget deficit. Even worse, the president’s budget would borrow an additional $9 trillion over the next decade, more than doubling the national debt. By 2019, America will be spending nearly $800 billion on net interest to service the debt incurred by Washington’s chronic addiction to the national credit card — more than we spend on national defense.

Americans feel their future is in danger. They feel raw anger at the arrogance undergirding the scope, scale and repetition of bloated federal spending. They feel chest-tightening exasperation at the unrelenting and illogical march of the-more-you-spend-the-more-you-save talking points coming out of Washington. And they feel the sickening weight of the realization of what our future will look like as we become deeper and deeper debtors to nations like China.

At times the application of these emotions is unrefined, indelicate and sometimes inappropriate. But as leaders prepare to return to Washington, it’s not the screaming protestors or high-profile confrontations to which our leaders need to be most closely tuned.

Instead, it is the small business owner working a second job to keep his business afloat who forgoes the rare pleasure of an extra hour of sleep to spend his Saturday morning holding a sign on a busy thoroughfare. It is a young mother who corrals her two preschoolers long enough to call her friends about her frustration with the direction of the nation. It is the young professional who spends his evening sharing news articles and facts on Facebook rather than watching the preseason game playing on the television in the background. It is the man who digs through his glove box in 90-degree heat to find a a pen while his groceries melt in the August sun.

If you really expose the core of the frustration across our nation there is one simple, yet largely unarticulated theme: Americans have an unequivocal intolerance of those who imperil our chances of creating a better future. Our citizens will put up with a lot, but they will not stand idle to the slaying of their dream of a better tomorrow. We have many problems to solve and reforms to be made. But the American people want and deserve a future built with common sense, thoughtful ideas and considered proposals.

The fuel of American life is the faith that tomorrow will hold more possibility and more promise than today. Our dreams for where our hard work will take us make it possible to put up with inadequacies of our leaders, but nothing will provoke passionate action more quickly than holding hostage our aspiration that we can leave better futures for our children. Woe to the generation of American leaders that bleeds the spigot of American optimism for the benefit of today’s sound bite. Nothing is more tightly connected to the happiness of our nation than our optimism in tomorrow.