Susan Page, USA TODAY
PITTSBURGH - Remember that wave of optimism and good feeling that typically greets a presidential inauguration, not to mention a new year?
This time, it's hard to find.
Battered by an economy that is only slow recovering - and soured by the spectacle of Washington dysfunction in the "fiscal cliff" debate - views of the nation's future and its fundamental promise have darkened in the four years since Barack Obama's first inauguration.
Then, even during an unfolding financial crisis, Americans believed by a double-digit margin that it was likely young people would have a better life than their parents, one facet of the classic American dream. Now, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds they're narrowly inclined to say that's not likely. By 50%-47%, respondents say the country's best years are behind us.
"I'm pessimistic about where the country is and where it's going," says Rick Rogoff, 55, the owner of a small food-service company here, ticking off the reasons why. "From the cost of living to the quality of health care to inflation to the politics of the country - the partisanship, it's endless. I'm not really a pessimist. I'm a realist. I look at the situation and it's hard to find things that are good."
Even those with a more upbeat perspective sound less than confident. "I'm optimistic," Tamera Bryant, 39, the auditor for a non-profit organization, says of Obama's next four years, "but I think it's going to be a fight."
Call us weary and wary.
Results from the nationwide poll and interviews in this Ohio River Valley city, which counts George Washington among its founders, underscore the rocky road Obama and other officials face in convincing Americans the nation can address its most persistent problems - and that they can be trusted to lead the way.
In the new poll, more than three of four Americans say the way politics works in Washington is causing serious harm to the country.
At a roundtable discussion in Pittsburgh and in follow-up interviews, the mood was subdued. Rogoff and Bryant were among 11 local residents with divergent points of view who met to discuss the prospects ahead for the president and the nation. Near the end of the evening, five raise their hands to say the nation's best days are ahead. The other six say the best days for the United States already have passed.
Over the past few years, some have seen job layoffs in their families and neighbors facing home foreclosures. Others worry that deficit spending, government regulations and the health care overhaul law are eroding individual freedoms. Last month's shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., shadowed their thoughts and the holidays.
They are divided about Obama but united in their disdain for Congress and Washington. By 4-1, Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. The perils-of-Pauline negotiations over the year-end budget and tax negotiations dubbed the fiscal cliff have fueled the sense that the government no longer functions as it should.
"I just wish the politicians would be unified for what's the good of the country, instead of the special interests and the partisanship and the party line. Just do what's right for the people of this country," Rogoff says. "We'd be unstoppable. But it seems like we've gone over the cliff on that."
"If they could work together, they could get more stuff done," Diana Jackson, 47, a customer-service representative, agrees. "I also think like this: We voted them in so they could do a job. If I didn't do my job, I'd get fired. Why can't they be accountable for not doing their job? They've forgotten why they're there."
Heads nod around the table.
The stratospheric expectations that surrounded Obama's groundbreaking election in 2008 have fallen back to Earth - not to dismal levels, but to decidedly lower ones.
Then, two-thirds in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll said they were "optimistic" and "proud" in reaction to Obama's election; now, about half cite those emotions in response to his re-election. Then, six in 10 were "excited"; now, four in 10 feel that way.
Negative reactions run higher now. Three in 10 were "pessimistic" in response to his election four years ago; now 43% are. Then, 27% described their response as "afraid"; that number has jumped to 36%.
The poll of 1,025 adults taken Dec. 14-17 has a margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points.
Perspectives on Obama spark the most impassioned exchanges of the roundtable discussion. In the group, five had voted for Obama and five for Republican Mitt Romney; one had backed Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
"He's doing the best he can with what he's got," Jackson says of Obama. Michelle Stearns, 44, a social worker, wonders whether the friction between the political parties "is just people being prejudiced." At school, she says, her children hear "horrible racial slurs" against the president. She asks: "If Obama had been white, how would this have gone?"
Jennifer Majcher, 44, a stay-at-home mom and supporter of the Tea Party movement, counters heatedly that opposition to Obama has nothing to do with racial prejudice and everything to do with opposition to the policies he has pursued.
"He spent his way through everything," she says. "He pushed through everything he wanted and blamed (George W.) Bush for everything. I'm frustrated that people are blind to all the damage he has caused this country."
Asked to describe in a word or two what Obama's second term will be like, Majcher and Rogoff say "more of the same." The other Romney voters use similar language. Matt Gailey, a 33-year-old lawyer, says "depressing" and Dan Davis, 27, who works in a bank, says "disappointing." Armend Engelbrecht, 31, the owner of an auto mechanic firm, predicts "a dismal failure for the country."
Among the Obama voters, the optimism of four years ago has been tempered. Kimberly Gillis, 42, a high-school English teacher, says it will be "positive" and Stearns struggles to find a word, then settles on "interesting." Jackson predicts a "tug of war." Jim Pierce, 48, who manages housing units, expects a "stalemate."
Karl Greenley, 34, a tech consultant who voted for the Green Party candidate for president, thinks the next four years will be "fraught with conflict."
Americans do see Obama's re-election as being consequential. In the USA TODAY poll, half say the fact he won the White House rather than Romney will make a great deal of difference to the future of the country. Just one in five say his election will make not much or no difference.
By 3-1, those surveyed predict that, in the next four years, Obama will be more liberal rather than more conservative than he was in his first term. There is wariness about the impact his second-term policies will have: 35% predict they will make their own financial situations better; 42% say they will make them worse.
And nearly three years after he signed his signature achievement into law, the president has yet to convince most Americans that the Affordable Care Act will prove to be a positive for them and their families. Four in 10 say the law designed to expand health coverage will make things worse; three in 10 say it will make things better.
Just 12% predict the law will make things for them "a lot better." Nearly twice as many, 21%, say it will make things "a lot worse."
In the roundtable, there is uncertainty and concern about what the provisions of the law will mean when fully implemented. "Obamacare is going to bankrupt us all," says Gailey, who calls the law unsustainable and complains that the United States is becoming more like the social welfare states of Europe.
Majcher worries the programs that have helped cover services for her 8-and 11-year-old sons, who have attention-deficit and anxiety disorders, may be curtailed as a result of the law. "The government has been there for my children, but I'm a little worried what is going to happen," she says. "Is this all going to change?"
Is that a light?
Americans do see a flicker of light at the end what has been a long tunnel.
Four years ago, just 13% of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the USA. At the time, financial institutions from big banks to the auto industry were in crisis as the economic contracted and unemployment soared. Now, 23% express satisfaction with the country's course - still significantly lower than when previous recent presidents took office for their second terms. For Bush in 2005, 45% were satisfied; for Bill Clinton in 1997, 43%; for Ronald Reagan in 1985, 52%.
Memories of the economic travails of the past few years are fresh. Jackson was laid off when her employer decided to contract out customer services; after five weeks the new firm hired her back but with less generous health care coverage and no 401(k) retirement plan. Pierce has watched as the low- and moderate-income families in housing units he manages struggle, "affording less, living on shoe strings, eating ramen" noodles.
In the poll, more than a third say either they or one of their closest family members have suffered a "major financial setback" in the past year; just one in five report a major financial gain in their family. While the economy, in fact, is growing again - the recession officially ended in June 2009 - just a third of Americans see it that way. They're outnumbered by the 44% who say it's in a recession or a depression.
There is more optimism when Americans consider their own families and their personal lives. They are inclined to say they and their families are better off rather than worse off than they were one year ago. Looking ahead, by an overwhelming 69%-27%, they are optimistic about how their family will fare in 2013.
"I see what seems to be an improvement in housing and the real-estate industry, and overall I think there have been more jobs," Stearns says. "There for a while, I know at my husband's job, they weren't doing raises; they were cutting everything. All of a sudden, in the past year or two, things have gotten better for them."
Still, predictions for the nation in 2013 are almost all downbeat.
By 2-1, those surveyed expect this year to be one of economic difficulty, not one of prosperity. A majority say employment will improve and inflation will be under control. But more than eight in 10 also say taxes and the crime rate will rise. Three of four predict a "troubled year" of international discord, not a peaceful one. Most believe American power around the globe will decline.
Last month's mass shooting in Newtown has reinforced a sense that the nation has gotten off-track in ways that seem beyond anyone's ability to remedy.
At the roundtable discussion, asked what has gotten worse about the country since they were growing up, Bryan offers: "Kids shooting kids."
"This country has way too many deaths attributed to weapons, to guns, like no other country in the world," Rogoff says in a follow-up interview. The shock of the Connecticut shootings has the National Rifle Association "running a little scared" at the moment, but he says experience suggests that won't last. "Long-term, the people have short memories."
In addition to doing more to control assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, Greenley says the government should fund and mandate safety training for gun owners, similar to that required to get a driver's license. But he doubts that or much else will happen. "The reaction so far seems like a lot of spinning wheels," he says.