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Do Americans Know? – OpEd


By Mike Jennings

Many of us have often wondered why the American public seems to change its opinion on politics so quickly. Let me give you an example: US President Barack Obama took office in January 2009 with an approval rating of 82 percent. One week later his approval rating was down to 68 percent.

During that week he delivered a number of speeches, which reaffirmed his campaign promises, signed an executive to order closing Guantanamo within a year — although later on he reversed that decision — and introduced his economic stimulus plan.

At the time it seemed like Obama was taking steps exactly in the same directions that he had vowed to do in the months preceding the election but his approval ratings dropped by 14 percent.

Obama is not the only politician to have received such a treatment from the American public.

In Wisconsin, the very people who voted Republicans into the state legislature and the governor office, asked for their candidates recall when they implemented the policies they had said they would.

It is true, of course, that politicians tend to change their stances and opinions. It is true that they campaign to appeal the public but once elected their actions are influenced by interest groups. But sometimes it is the public that seems to have changed its mind when it comes to approval ratings. Why does it happen?

I was watching “The Other Guys” on a Saturday night with a group of acquaintances — About a year after the movie’s original release. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (no spoilers) the end credit sequence provides some statics about the American economy.

Moviefone has highlighted some of the figures cited in the sequence:

– that the TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) bailout cost every person in America enough to take a trip around the world

– that after the bailout, some $1.2 billion in taxpayer money went to pay the bonuses of just 73 AIG execs, while Goldman Sachs got a huge tax break that saw its tax rate drop from 34 percent to 1 percent

– that the average CEO earned about eight times the salary of his average employee a century ago, but earns more than 300 times his average employee’s wages now

– that the typical American 401(k) retirement account has lost nearly half its value over the last five years

– that New York cops may earn a maximum pension of about $48,000, while the average retiring CEO reaps benefits of about $83.6 million.

After the movie one of the younger people in the room asked whether the figures were accurate. She was dumbfounded when I told her that the figures were in fact accurate based on official reports while some unofficial reports have even painted gloomier pictures.

It was interesting to me that there were still people who did not know the causes and consequences of the Great Recession of 2007. Anyone, who even briefly, follows the news would know at least that much about the Bush administration and the Obama administration’s bailout packages and how they were spent in the interest of big corporations.

To me it was so interesting, in fact, that I deiced to ask the 20-year-old American student who lives in Pleasanton, California and goes to school in San Francisco some questions, just to get a general sense of how much the younger generation know — or care for that matter — about the country’s economy.

Question: What do you know about the US debt ceiling?

Answer: I know that our nation is in a lot of debt.

Question: I’m talking about the debt ceiling. Do you know what will happen on August 2nd, if the amount of money the US is allowed to borrow is not raised?

Answer: Not really.

Question: Have you ever heard of the possibility of the US defaulting on its debt if the Democrats and the Republicans fail to agree on a plan to raise that ceiling?

Answer: I heard it was dealt with a couple of months ago.

Question: That was a temporary measure to buy time. Do you know that if they fail to agree on a plan this time the Federal Government will face shutdown similar to what happened in Minnesota?

Answer: Oh, I’ve heard about the Minnesota shutdown. I heard some activists sent them pizzas.

Although I could not establish what incident or event she was referring to, I was amazed to find out that the younger generation seems to be so out of touch with things like economy that affects almost every aspect of our lives.

At that point I asked her some questions about the American electoral system, which she answered correctly and then I inquired if she ever follows the news. Not surprisingly her answer was negative.

I asked how she decides whom to vote for in elections, to which she replied, “Well, usually about a month or two before each election people start talking about the candidates and I get to know them.”

She further explained that such a practice is common among her friends, who will spread the word by mouth about the agenda and policies of each candidate.

The incident reminded me of a Newsweek study, in which the magazine recently gave 1,000 Americans the US Citizenship test and found that their knowledge of the history and running of their own country was seriously lacking.

The survey found that “70 percent of Americans do not know what the Constitution is,” the Daily Mail reported.

During a July 11 press conference, President Obama was asked whether the US problem was that the 69 percent of the people — according to a CBS poll — who oppose raising the nation’s debt limit are not represented in the talks over how to raise the debt ceiling.

“Well, let me distinguish between professional politicians and the public at large. The public is not paying close attention to the ins and outs of how a Treasury option goes. They shouldn’t. They’re worrying about their family; they’re worrying about their jobs; they’re worrying about their neighborhood. They’ve got a lot of other things on their plate. We’re paid to worry about it,” Obama replied.

In other words the president of the United States encouraged the American people to avoid “paying close attention” to politics and let the politicians do the job.

But what he neglected to mention is that how the American people can elect a candidate to solve their problems if they should not pay attention to their problems in the first place?

The American public is not informed enough about politics and major decisions that affect it and the US government would like to keep it that way in the interest of politicians, corporations and lobby groups.

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One thought on “Do Americans Know? – OpEd

  • July 25, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    I’m over 45 and in no position to comment on what the youth of the US knows and doesn’t know. But I will say it’s difficult to ascertain facts when national news broadcasts (television and radio) tend to lean one way or the other.

    Plus, generalizations about the “American public” are hard to swallow in a nation that includes places like New Mexico, New Hampshire, Florida, and New York, Hawaii – we’re all so different. It’s like making generalizations about the EU, when Slovenia neighbors Italy, but the cultures and mentalities are quite different.


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