A memo to the president from middle America

Dear Mr. President,

Greetings from middle America - or middle Americans, at least. From out here beyond the Beltway, recent presidential politics have often resembled a giant mosh pit, where rock stars leap onto the hands of frenzied audiences. We can never quite tell if you're being carried toward the podium by gleeful Democrats or pushed toward the door by bellicose Republicans.

Enough of that.

Basically, we're more interested in issues that impact us than in your personal future, or who else is up and down in Washington. With your final State of the Union address tonight, we have some matters we'd like you to think seriously about while there's still some time.

Basically, things are pretty good, at least on paper. We know you're going to make mention the "longest peacetime economic expansion in US history."

We also know that means more people off welfare, falling crime, and low unemployment. We can feel these effects all over - and it's nice to be fighting over what to do with a budget surplus.

So, on one hand, we don't mean to be picky. But on the other hand, you work for us. The polls are evidence of our top concerns: education, health care, Social Security, crime, taxes, foreign policy. But we don't want you to just plug the right buzzwords into a speech, smile, and go home. More than anything, we want follow-through.

No. 1: "Keep on working."

Gloria and Alice Rosales, a retiree and her soon-to-be retired sister think you are sloughing off. They say you have dropped the ball on health care and they haven't seen any of the $1,000 tax credit for the elderly you mentioned last January.

"I'm still waiting for that tax credit," says Gloria, heading for dessert outside a movie theater here. "He's not following through on things since squeaking through the Lewinsky scandal. And there are so many people out here who need a health-care bill to take care of them."

The lack of follow-through on key promises, says sister Alice, makes it difficult for her to sit through another State of the Union address with its laundry list of promises.

"When I see a president listing off all these great ideas he got from focus groups, and a bunch of congressmen hollering, it just leaves me cold," says Alice.

No. 2: Deal with nation's moral malaise.

Despite material wealth, many of us feel adrift in a moral numbness and lack of connection.

"Everyone's been telling us that we are graduating into this great economy and that we should get out there and make some money," says Michelle Johnston, a public-relations major from Boston University who just finished ice skating at Boston Common's Frog Pond. "You feel this pressure to hop on the bandwagon. But at the same time, you have to ask yourself: 'Is that what's really important?' Money does not always mean happiness."

Her companion, Maya Elmer, puts it this way: "The breakdown of family values is what's wrong with America today," she says, adjusting the fuzzy pink hat pulled over her blond hair. "I mean when you go to other countries, you realize that in America, it's all rush, rush, rush. Nobody has time for family anymore."

Three thousand miles across the country, at Universal Studios, Matthew Aaron sees something similar.

"I really feel that despite all this prosperity, people are somehow disconnected from themselves, each other, and what they really want," says Mr. Aaron, who took last year off to be a full-time father and build a better relationship with his wife. "The things that are wrong and need to be dealt with in this country need to be solved individually, on an inner level, more than on a political level. But the president can set the tone."

No. 3: Articulate a vision of what America stands for, at home and abroad.

"We have a good basic government system but it just see saws ... between those who are in power and those who aren't but want power," says Donna Wolf, enjoying salad at an outdoor cafe here. "That's frustrating to those of us who feel that what the people want doesn't get done."

Because of what she sees as a general rudderlessness in domestic and foreign affairs - exacerbated by the constitutional furor over the Lewinsky scandal - Wolf says the country's place in the world is unclear.

"America comes off throughout the world as a bunch of bumbling idiots. We are spending too much of our political energy talking about people's dirty laundry for our own amusement," she says. "What purpose does that serve?"

But these are general and less-tangible concerns. We've got some specific priorities as well.

Top in most our minds is the state of education today.

Frank Cunetto says the teens he hires to work at his 16-stool dinette in Brentwood, Mo., "can't add a ticket to save their lives - and they don't care."

"I worry about the standards today, they're so much lower," says Mr. Cunetto. "We have all this prosperity, but it seems like things are deteriorating. It seems like the work ethic just isn't there. We're back to the Me Generation."

Education has particular resonance for Oregonians, who have slashed budgets in recently though local ballot measures.

"I would have thought a well-educated man like [Clinton] would recognize our education problems, and [yet] he's done nothing to make it better," says Joan Hess of northwest Portland. "I'd like to ask him about that - but I wouldn't even want to hear his response."

The issue echoes to Boston. "America needs to do something about schools," says Carmen Johnson, who just finished lunch with co-workers at TGI Fridays on Boston's ritzy Newbury Street.

With six children and 10 grandchildren, Ms. Johnson says "America needs to be more concerned about young people today. Schools need to get back to basic principles and basic values."

Bundled up against the cold, co-worker Vanessa Victor agrees.

"My children have always gone to parochial school," says Ms. Victor who has one child in college and another in third grade. "I mean kids are allowed to die their hair purple, but they aren't allowed to pray in schools."

Beyond education, we want you to keep health care on the top of your agenda.

"Things in this country are great," says Venson Brown, a chef on Amtrak here. "I've never felt more positive about the future of the country. At the same time, the big discrepancy is health care. There are so many out there ... who have no coverage. With large families and the cost of medicine that is a very real concern."

Oh, and one more thing. Let's try to spread all this wealth.

"The [dividing line between] haves and have-nots is widening," says Dick, a Boston man bustling into Dunkin' Donuts who didn't give his last name. "Those who have more money, make more money. But those who don't have enough to invest in today's skyrocketing stock market are being left out. I don't know what the solution is. But I also don't think politicians have the solution."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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