Inside the historic government halls, I recently watched as lawmakers barely approved a controversial plan aimed at tripling university tuition rates. Just outside, thousands of protesters got caught up in pockets of violence. Deep spending cuts have pushed people — who are making do with less and being taxed more — to a dangerous brink. Many fear budget cuts will continue to impact local services and whittle away at remaining public-sector jobs.
If this sounds like New York, Los Angeles or Any City, USA, it was actually London. The suffering there made me feel right at home.
The angry British have pledged to continue their campaign against higher taxes and major spending cuts. What is not new is dwindling confidence in government, an undeniable connection we share with Great Britain. According to a Reuters-Ipsos poll, 55% of British citizens are dissatisfied with their government, and only 28% believe that the economy will improve in the next year. Four out of five doubt that the private sector can absorb employees laid off.
One bystander told me during the protests that the British — especially students — are frustrated with broken promises and leaders who don’t deliver. He could have easily been talking about stateside worries.
A Harvard survey found that 68% of Americans agree there is a leadership crisis. A similar number believe that if we don’t install better leaders, things will only get worse. According to the latest Gallup Poll, President Obama’s approval rating is 50%, while Congress hit a new low last month: 13%. No doubt that growing dissatisfaction among voters played a role in giving Republicans a chance to now run the House. Hopefully, the new 112th Congress, which began this week, will lead to more bipartisanship leadership.
This was my first visit to Europe, and I must admit I was looking forward to seeing the U.S. from a different perspective. But everywhere I looked — from Britain to Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal— people were looking for someone to take up the leadership mantle and confront severe budgetary crises.
The nervousness among Europeans with the current economy is a feeling we Americans share. Fortunately, our economic woes have not yet led to the sort of violence I witnessed there. But it serves as an exclamation point on the fact that Obama and the new Congress need to show some leadership on creating jobs, while also confronting our deficit issues.