100 days: rage builds quietly from two directions
When Barack Obama came to Elkhart, Indiana in February it was Ed Neufeldt who introduced him. "We want to work," Ed told Obama, who embraced him warmly.
The big, genial 62-year old used to build the motor caravans Americans call RVs, and Elkhart is the capital of the RV industry. But when credit dried up the RV industry collapsed. Ed's been out of work since September, after 32 years in the industry - 27 of them without a single day's sickness, he tells me proudly.
Back then, in February, Obama's main problem seemed to be the Congressional Republicans, who were blocking and tinkering with his fiscal stimulus Bill. Now things seem more complicated. The fiscal stimulus is taking a long time to kick in, and the very principle of it is deeply resented by men like Ed, even though he will benefit from it in unemployment pay and health insurance payments.
100 days into the Obama presidency I found Ed and his former colleagues hard at work building timber-frame homes for homeless families. It's a church-run project - they work for nothing. What they share with Obama, these men, is a deep religious faith. On almost everything else their attitudes reveal that this is not really Obama country.
"We want them to get out of the way and let us work," one tells me. Them being the government. "We don't want to be construction workers: what are we going to do? Be the man that holds the sign saying stop-go? We're not trained for anything else!"
To these men - as for many Republican politicians - spending taxpayers money to get out of a recession seems wrong on principle. In Indiana the Republican governor has at least taken it - others, Sarah Palin included, have refused the money. But if it's to be spent at all they would have preferred it as tax cuts or simple cash giveaways. What the Elkhart men want is for Americans to start buying RVs again, not for the government to put them to work on building roads.
Of course that is only half the story of America; as we found out in the election it is, precisely, just under half. The other half of America bought the argument that state intervention, an end to "trickle-down" economics could put the country right. But even in this demographic there is trouble.
A few days after I visited Elkhart I found myself being pinned against the walls at a trendy book publishing party in Brooklyn by student activists who think Obama is just a sell out. Virtually everybody politically active on the liberal wing of the Democrats is involved in a perpetual one-note riff on the theme of Obama's timidity; his "capture" by Clinton-era machine politicians and Wall Street. "The Good the Bad and Geithner" was Arianna Huffington's memorable headline on her balance sheet of the first 100 days.
Among mainstream political journalists there is a certain insouciance about all this: if politics is just elections and polls, then Obama is flying high. His approval rating is good, he's just recruited a Republican senator, taking him close to the tipping point where he can get his laws through Congress with ease. But I can't help recalling what happened with the TARP in September.
Paulson's bank bailout plan enraged right wing, small town America - and that rage coincided with the rage of the liberal left. Both saw the bailout as wrong in principle, both pressured their representatives. The result was the final few weeks of the Bush administration found it trapped between left and right wing plebeian rage.
There is no rage right now - the tax tea parties were stunts organized by a Republican base layer whose top political leaders remain disoriented. But give it time. Ed and his colleages were mainly laid off last September. Six months unemployment, plus two Federally funded extensions, should take them to September 09. "That's when the rubber meets the road," says Ed. "People will lose their cars, their vehicles."
Meanwhile we have not yet seen the full shape of Geithner's bank bailout. While in Britain the failing banks were sternly ordered to take state money, and the government took a massive stake (if not control), in the USA there is still something of a fandango going on between Geithner and Wall Street; the banks are determined not to be recapitalized by the state, not to give up a major stake and have lobbied hard to make sure the coming bailout deal is highly favourable to them.
Not a day goes by without the leader writers and senior op-ed people at the New York Times, HuffPo, Truthout etc denouncing this as treachery and pronouncing that it will fail. We'll see: at my Brooklyn party there were also plenty of people prepared to believe that Obama is planning an unannounced coup against the banks that will leave Citigroup and Bank of America partially nationalized.
The nightmare for Obama is: what if the fiscal stimulus fails to deliver, while simultaneously enraging the small-town conservatives; meanwhile the bank bailout delivers only to the Wall Street elite, simultaneously enraging the urban left. And what if this coincides with Ed and his mates having their dole cut off, and my student radicals and their mates entering the jobs market to find there are no more jobs in Starbucks?
100 days is too soon to judge any presidency, certainly on the economic front. But America's media and civil society is alive with "Plan B" discussions. Many Republican governors are quietly implementing a Plan B version of the stimulus, allocating money to projects that reflect their own political and economic philosophies. In the pages of the New York Times its more overt: from Krugman, Stiglitz and Robert Reich you have a daily dose of advice to Obama to cauterize the banking losses, spend the stimulus money faster, and just generally to get on with it.
Tune into Newsnight, live from Chicago, to see my report on the fiscal stimulus and hear a stellar cast of commentators and politicos battle it out. Tonight at 2230 GMT.