WASHINGTON - Five years ago, millions cheered as President Barack Obama came to office with ambitious aspirations about hope and change. These days his tone couldn't be more different.
With a mix of alarm and dismay, Obama has started musing about the dangers of cynicism in nearly every major public appearance. The cautionary note has showed up in speeches to students and civil rights groups, at Democratic fundraisers — even in his meeting with Pope Francis.
Obama has reason to be concerned. Americans' confidence in all three branches of government is falling and has hit the lowest level of Obama's presidency, according to a Gallup poll last week. While Congress usually earns low scores, less than one-third of Americans now have confidence in the presidency or the Supreme Court, erasing the gains both enjoyed at the start of Obama's presidency.
Obama has described a creeping case of cynicism setting in across the United States, leading Americans to suspect that not only is Washington broken, it's beyond fixing. If that line of thinking continues, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy with dire long-term ramifications, he says.
"It's easy to be cynical. In fact, these days it's kind of trendy," Obama told a crowd of thousands recently in Minneapolis. Cynicism may masquerade as wisdom, he said, but it can't liberate a continent, invent the Internet or send a man to the moon. "Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice."
But in Obama's stagnant second term, those inclined to cynicism haven't had to look far.
With Washington at a near-standstill politically, both parties have essentially written off prospects for any major legislation for the remainder of Obama's presidency.
Obama' attempts to circumvent Congress to get things done have drawn rebukes from the Supreme Court and a threatened lawsuit from the House of Representatives, casting a bright light on the state of Washington dysfunction.
"There were at least times in 2011, 2012 when we had big battles over things, but they usually wound up with something getting done," Obama's senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, said in an interview. Not anymore, he said. He blamed the poisonous atmosphere on six years of a concerted Republican strategy to breed cynicism for political advantage.
Addressing a graduation ceremony last month in Irvine, California, Obama urged college students not to "buy into" cynical thinking and tune out politics.
"If you're fed a steady diet of cynicism that says nobody is trustworthy and nothing works, and there's no way we can actually address these problems, then the temptation is to just go it alone, to look after yourself and not participate in the larger project of achieving our best vision of America," Obama said.
Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host and Obama critic, said Obama has failed to pull the country out of that mindset even where other presidents of both parties have succeeded. He said Americans have seen how Wall Street has blossomed under Obama while average Americans have suffered and have given up on Obama's ability to govern effectively.
Jon Favreau, Obama's chief speechwriter for his first four years in office, said Obama sees using the bully pulpit to keep Americans engaged as part of his responsibility as president.
"What the president's trying to say is, 'I know we're in stasis right now and there's been gridlock for a while, but there are two responses to that,'" Favreau said. "'One is to stay out of the public debate and give up hope. That's cynicism. The other is to say even with how bad it is, I'm still going to try to get stuff done.'"
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