We Call It an ‘Existential Crisis’*

Expectations surrounding Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address are enormous because Americans are extremely unhappy. The U.S. president has to achieve the impossible.

When he took office last year, President Joe Biden had one message for his people and the rest of the world: “America is back!” Today, few Americans would agree with that. The atmosphere could hardly be more somber on Tuesday when Biden will deliver the traditional State of the Union address. In a poll conducted by Marist College in December, only 49% of Americans said they were more optimistic than pessimistic. For the first time since 2009 when the pollsters began asking this question, fewer than half of those asked were optimistic.

Americans are especially unhappy with the economy. According to a recent poll by the TV network ABC and The Washington Post, 75% of Americans have a negative view of the economy. Yet in the past year, U.S. companies created a record 6.4 million new jobs. The job market in the U.S. is recovering more quickly than in any other region of the world. Wages have risen too. The 5.8% increase is the highest annual increase in wages in 40 years. But when one looks more closely, the recovery also has its dark sides.

Everything Is More Expensive

For one, accelerating economic growth and supply chain disruptions from the pandemic have triggered strong inflation. In January, the inflation rate was at 7.5% and thus notably greater than the rate of wage increases. The war in Ukraine and its consequences for the energy market may soon drive inflation up into the double digits. Even now, price increases can be felt almost everywhere: from eggs, fish and meat to clothes, furniture and used cars. And the absolute number of newly created jobs may set a record, but there is still a shortage of about 4 million jobs needed to reach the pre-pandemic status quo. The shock of 2020, when the pandemic wiped out about 22 million jobs, has left deep wounds.

The pandemic is also causing chaos in the housing market. For many, lockdowns triggered the desire for a new home and thus a new real estate boom. Buyers outbid each other over their objects of desire. We last saw such bidding wars among home buyers in the early 2000s — and that ended with the financial crisis. Although homeowners are only seeing increases of up to 20% in property values, the high costs of real estate are also driving up the price of rent. The flood of many well-to-do urbanites into small towns and midsized cities has also rendered housing unaffordable for long-time locals in many places. In Spokane, Washington, for instance, a city of about 230,000 residents, prices for a single-family house have risen 60% in the last two years.

What Happened to Portland?

But the negative atmosphere in the U.S. is not just because of the economy. Social cohesion is a problem in this diverse country even during good times; now it has become even more fragile. Violence is on the rise in many big cities, but not only there. In Portland, Oregon, which is usually known for its relaxed, tolerant character, three people were killed in shootings the weekend before last, and eight more were wounded. One of the gunmen was a 43-year-old mechanic who was so agitated by a peaceful demonstration in his neighborhood that he grabbed his gun and shot in the head a 60-year-old woman attending the protest. In the first two months of this year, the police registered 234 shootings in the city with 650,000 residents that left 18 dead and 64 injured. “Gun violence in this city is beyond anything I’ve even imagined in a worst-case scenario,” Ken Duilio, a member of the Portland police force who heads the Focused Intervention Team that combats gun violence, told The Oregonian. He wondered what has happened to his hometown.

The opioid crisis is also intensifying. The pandemic has reduced access to treatment and supervision services, which were already lacking. On average, 75 Americans die every day from overdoses involving opioids, fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 100,306 overdose deaths for the 12 months leading up to April 2021. That is 28% more than the same time period a year before.

But such deaths of despair — from drug overdoses, alcoholism or suicide — were already on the rise before the pandemic. Since 2014, they have combined with obesity to decrease the average life expectancy in the U.S., a trend that is the complete opposite of the situation in other industrialized countries.

It is not the first time in U.S. history that Americans are experiencing such an existential crisis. “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America,” Jimmy Carter warned in his speech in the summer of 1979. The 39th president was observing “growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” Like Biden, Carter was not only fighting against the lousy mood at home, but also inflation and the consequences of his own foreign policy failures.

At the beginning of his presidency, Biden was already being celebrated as a new Franklin D. Roosevelt because of his trillion-dollar plans for rebuilding deteriorating infrastructure and creating a new social safety net. Roosevelt led the U.S. out of the Great Depression in the 1930s and through World War II. Now, however, British historian Niall Ferguson is not the only one comparing Biden with Carter. Carter was infamous for his self-critical addresses, which surely contributed to his later defeat by Ronald Reagan. Given the current state of the world and in his own country, the expectations for Biden’s speech could hardly be greater. He will almost certainly not be able to meet them.

*Editor’s note: The original German version of this article is available through a paid subscription.

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