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Diving Into The Disconnect

Are you terrified you will get Ebola? Or are you more worried about the flu?

Do you see recent Wall Street dives as a buying opportunity? Or are you certain they represent the end of your retirement planning?

Do you see a shiny silver lining when you hear that the federal deficit has clocked in at its lowest level since 2007? Or do you look at flat wages instead?

Therein lies the disconnect that tangles our nation’s governing and politics as we wait for the midterm elections and prepare to watch a lame duck Congress face off against a lame-duck President.

I got to visit both sides of the chasm this week while reporting on a tossup Senate race in Colorado one day; and from inside the halls at the Treasury Department the next.

It’s autumn, so I spent last weekend at a farmer’s market and a picture-perfect pumpkin patch in and around Denver, asking voters what they thought about the state’s tough Senate race.

Everywhere, I encountered exasperation.

“When you look at American elections, sometimes you think you’ve entered Wonderland,” said Norman Provizer, a political science professor at Metropolitan Denver University.

It’s true that politics has its share of giant rabbits and spinning teacups. And for voters, it’s kind of dizzying.

Rick Harris, an oil company employee, told me he is fiscally conservative, but liberal on social issues.

“That’s why I’m undecided,” he said, as his young daughter frolicked among the pumpkins nearby. “I’m a registered Democrat, but I’m kind of waffling. When you’re younger…it was easy being a Democrat. When you start paying taxes and all that kind of stuff, your mind starts to change.”

“I think Congress is such a mess that I don’t think anybody is getting what they really want, and I don’t really know how to fix it,” said Judy Brown, a Denver native.

Once I arrived back in Washington, I popped over to the Treasury Department for a peek at the flip side of the disconnect. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and White House Budget Director Shaun Donovan were anxious to talk about some good economic news for a change.

And it was good news. The deficit – which had been clocking in at a trillion dollars annually for President Obama’s entire first term – is now down to $483 billion – a drop that has muted deficit hawks who for years warned the fiscal sky was falling.

But Lew and Donovan took the good news a step farther than the American public is generally willing to go, trumpeting a return to economic “stability” and “normalcy.”

Trouble is, in a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year (link is external), just over half of Americans said they are satisfied with their opportunities to get ahead by working hard. That’s down from 77 percent in 2002.

“The conditions in 2009 were really bad, and it leaves some bruising that takes some time to get over,” Lew replied when I asked about that pessimism. “I think right now, we have been in an extended period where Washington hasn’t been getting to the brink of a crisis, where they’re seeing the economy begin to grow. And our job is to continue that.”

But it’s also the administration’s job to bridge the disconnect. That’s why President Obama canceled his travel this week to focus on the Ebola crisis. Worry trumps optimism almost every time.

That’s also why the administration’s top money men have no choice but to tamp down fears of a roller coaster stock market.

“While we have made a lot of progress in our economy, wages aren’t rising, particularly for the middle class, in the way that we would want them to see,” Donovan told me.”And that’s why we need to make further investments.”

And it’s why voting is so complicated in a midterm year when distractions – from health scares to foreign wars — abound.

Thomas Unterwagner, a restaurant owner in Denver, said one of the biggest distractions is Washington itself.

“I think people backlash against incumbents for other reasons,” he said. “I think a lot of it is the fear over terrorism and stuff they can’t really control. So you can’t control what ISIS is going to do. I think most basically, the problem is I think they blame whoever’s in office currently.”

That’s scary news for the Senate Democratic majority, but for governors and House members as well.

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