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The year of our discontent
San Francisco Chronicle


December 29, 2009

The 2009 political year began on a high note of "change" and "hope" and ended in a thud of stalemate, despair and public fury over the economy, health care reform and the war in Afghanistan.

No wonder it may go down as the year of the angry voter.

Americans will remember 2009 as much for the grassroots protests -- at "Tea Party" rallies and town hall meetings crashed by conservatives to demonstrations by public-option-favoring anti-war progressives -- as the Beltway grudge matches that characterized President Barack Obama's first year in office.

But even as they put the year in the rearview mirror, Americans shared common ground across the political divide, with deepening worries about their jobs, their disintegrating savings accounts and their changing health care.

The common message for their state and local elected officials: Do something.

"Voters are angry; I think they're beyond anger," says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. "They're desperately unhappy and desperately pessimistic, and they have given up hope. This is beyond malaise."

Going into 2010, a year of critical statewide and midterm congressional elections the political mood is darker than in recent memory, veteran political observers say.

"It's been the most significant erosion of trust that I've seen in my lifetime -- in the press, financial markets and religious institutions," Democratic strategist and former White House spokesman Chris Lehane said.

"California is foreshadowing where the country is heading," Lehane added. "People have concluded that these institutions are not serving them. And that's perilous for democracy. It doesn't work if people don't trust in their government to make decisions." The sour mood has swept politics at every level. Nationally, Obama's poll numbers, in the stratospheric 70 percent range at the start of his term in January, dropped recently below the 50 percent approval mark.

"There's no question that historically, the first midterm of a new president, by any analysis, is a tough election for the party in power," says Lehane. "The Democrats walked into a situation where the economy was headed to another Great Depression."

But Obama's efforts to pass a stimulus package and advance major initiatives on jobs, health care reform and climate change policy -- while confronting the huge costs of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq -- were met with Republican resistance and often-effective grassroots opposition to higher taxes and spending and the growing deficit.

The dark, angry mood could continue, even deepen, if the job outlook remains grim.

Americans "get the disconnect, the feeling that we're in uncharted territory and things aren't going to be the same," Sragow said. "(They're saying) the government can't do its basic business, so how can they address the problems?"

As they finish 2009 and look to a new year, Americans will be "looking to elected officials to figure it out," he said. "They want someone to say, 'This is the America we want to have, and this is what we need to do to get there.' "

Scenes from the year of the angry voter

Town halls: From crowds of furious constituents to congressional representatives cowering in fear, the summertime scenes of national town hall meetings on health care reform turned into a sign of America's partisan divide. Republicans said it was authentic grassroots anger while liberals likened the events to pitchfork-carrying mobs.

Tea Parties: Angry rallies about government deficits, spending and taxes abounded. But both parties may have something to fear from the rise of a renegade force: Tea Party activists are now more popular than Democrats or Republicans, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found.

Same-sex marriage: From Maine to California, there were protests to press the issue. Supporters of marriage equality hoped for a rebound in California after the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, while religious and conservative groups celebrated voters' rebuff of same-sex marriage in Maine and the New York Legislature's rejection of it.

Anti-war protests: Obama took heat from the left -- and Code Pink included -- as anti-war groups backed by some of Congress' most progressive members lambasted his decision to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan.

Climate change trouble: Even as he addressed world leaders in Copenhagen, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Obama's approval ratings on the issue had dropped to 45 percent, and talk radio and public rallies highlighted growing public doubt -- and political divides -- over the key environmental issue.



E-mail Carla Marinucci at cmarinucci(at)
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