Mullen | Signs of the Time: Without Obama's optimism, we may as well give up. | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Mullen | Signs of the Time: Without Obama's optimism, we may as well give up. 

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When gale-force winds blew through town last week, they uprooted the last of my neighborhood’s Barack Obama lawn signs. But the day after, when calmer weather prevailed, the neighbor across the street had driven her sign back into the soft ground of her front yard—right where it had been since summer. n

Obama yard signs and window placards are still in place all over Salt Lake City. I counted six on my five-mile drive into work today. The same goes for Obama bumper stickers. I walked two ramps of my downtown parking lot today, counting how many cars still sport his stickers. Nine.

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People go a little nuts when advertising their political candidates. Win or lose, it’s tough to say goodbye. Some drive around with a favorite bumper sticker until it fades into obscurity. I’m intrigued by a vintage Honda Civic parked in a driveway at a home I see on regular bike rides up Emigration Canyon. A near-illegible bumper sticker on back reads “Nixon. Now.”

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Obama won the presidential election nearly a month ago. And still, the stalwart supporters keep his banner flying. Are they hangers-on, party loyalists, shameless boosters, kitsch collectors, kooks? Maybe all of it.

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There is something more at play here. Why put the signs away when you still have a solid stake in optimism? Running the risk of showing my aging, un-hip self to City Weekly’s much younger and skeptical demographic, I’m thinking about the power it takes right now to embrace optimism, to get up and keep going. Discounting the extremes and single-issue ranting that come from the far-right and -left—the great middle in America is just trying to hunker down against a rotten economy and daily uncertainty. We fortify ourselves every day against a constant wave of negativity. But we have our secret hideout, our own pocket of redoubt against that enemy: belief it will get better.

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In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, 96 percent of Utahns polled by Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret News and KSL-TV said they believe they will still have their same job six months from now. Reciting the findings from the survey, a KSL radio reporter described people in Utah as either “naïve,” or “really not having anything to worry about.”

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The people surveyed were drinking from a cup half-full, all right. On the morning of Nov. 25, the U.S. Commerce Department released its third-quarter economic report, which shows the country plunging further into a recession. Americans reacted by cutting their spending from July through September more deeply than in 28 years. And that was before the stock market tanked in early October and Congress passed the initial $700-billion Wall Street bailout package.

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Nine banks failed in the third quarter. Twenty-two banks have failed so far this year, compared with only three in all of 2007. The national unemployment rate is at 6.5 percent, the highest in 14 years. The Commerce Department report notes the total number of jobless Americans is slightly over 10 million—the most in a quarter-century.

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With numbers like that, with gloomy economic forecasts on every news cast, Dianne Meppen, project director with Dan Jones & Associates, can’t figure Utah’s optimism, either. Discussing the recent poll, she told me she was a “little shocked” at the numbers. Of 406 adults surveyed, 57 percent were currently employed. The remaining 43 percent fell on the spectrum of unemployment—many were retired or living with a principal wage earner and choosing not to work. Among one prime age group for wage earning—35 to 44—only 12 percent reported they were not employed.

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“The reality is we are being told continuously to be prepared for a tough economy,” Meppen said. “Yet in Utah, it doesn’t seem to be an issue. Both coasts are feeling the impact [of the economy]. Maybe we haven’t been hit with it yet. I’d say Utahns are very optimistic.”

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We might as well be. Obama seems to be tapping deeper into that optimism by stringing out his call for hope in the final weeks of 2008. He’s holding a well-timed news conference every few days, and mixing his comments with a measured dose of urgency and composure. His plan is right out of the FDR playbook—a throwback to Roosevelt’s Depression-era Fireside Chats. His language is forceful but calm and bursting with optimism. Without it, we may as well give up.

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On May 7, 1933, Roosevelt delivered the second radio address of his first presidential term, unveiling specifics of the New Deal. The country, he said, had been “dying by inches.” He revealed unprecedented government intervention in banking and housing, the railroad system, agriculture and the job market. His voice was distinct and clear. “Throughout the Depression, you have been patient,” he told Americans. “Every ounce of strength and every resource at our command we have devoted to the end of justifying your confidence. … In the present spirit of mutual confidence and mutual encouragement, we go forward.”

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Clinging to optimism worked then, and it can work again. It’s Thanksgiving, and the future will be better. You can see the signs—they’re everywhere.

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