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Voters Are Unhappy but Optimistic — Why?

Americans this Fourth of July are short-term pessimistic but long-term optimistic. I’d say that unless things change for the better, they need to reconsider the long term.

Last week’s NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows that 62 percent of U.S. adults think that the country is “on the wrong track,” the highest level during Barack Obama’s presidency.

The Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index rose in May to its highest level since January 2008, but the Conference Board’s confidence index dropped and so did Gallup’s June economic confidence index. In the Gallup survey, pluralities of respondents rated the economy as “poor,” and around 60 percent said it was getting “worse.”

That sentiment is validated by the best summary I’ve seen of the current recovery — a New America Foundation report describing a “relatively weak GDP rebound” and “a jobless recovery,” facing the phasing out of fiscal and monetary stimulus, Europe’s financial crisis, U.S. debt overhang and an uncertain tax and regulatory environment.

Moreover, economists Sherle Schwenninger and Samuel Sherraden wrote, “State and local governments face fiscal shortfalls that are beginning to act as a drag on GDP growth and job creation,” housing prices are not recovering and wages are stagnant.

That’s the short-term bad news — just part of it. Along with oil spills and deepening doubts about the Afghan war, President Barack Obama’s support is dipping, though there’s no great confidence in Republicans, either.

As to the long term, however, a new Pew Research Center poll for Smithsonian magazine shows that 64 percent of Americans are optimistic about life for themselves and their families over the next 40 years, and 56 percent say the economy will be stronger than it is today.

People expect cancer to be cured and most energy to be derived from sources other than coal and oil, but 53 percent are afraid the U.S. will be hit with a nuclear terrorist attack.

Despite overall economic optimism, only 34 percent say that the standard of living for average families will get better, while 36 percent say it will get worse and 27 percent say it will stay flat.

And 58 percent believe that the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow.

That, I’m afraid, is in the cards. It’s partly owing to the failure of American schools to educate minorities, who will soon be a majority of the U.S. population.

Only half of all minority children graduate from high school on time and, of those who go to college, fewer than half graduate. The U.S. ranks 10th among all countries in overall college completion.

Moreover, as the Washington Post reported, China and the European Union are catching up with the United States in the number of people engaged in scientific and engineering research and development, and the U.S. trails Japan and South Korea in the percentage of gross domestic product spent on research investment.

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