Trapped in a Pandemic Funk: Millions of Americans Can’t Shake a Gloomy Outlook

Despite signals that the economy is improving and the virus is waning, many Americans said they were frustrated by polarized politics and a sense of stagnancy.

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A year ago, Michael Macey, a barber who lives in the suburbs outside Atlanta, was thrilled to help propel President Biden to victory, hopeful that Democrats would move swiftly to tackle policing laws and other big issues. But then he watched his hopes for sweeping changes wither in Washington.

Now, Mr. Macey’s sense of optimism — like that of millions of Americans — has been dashed. By the pain of an unending pandemic. By rising prices. By nationwide bickering that stretches from school board meetings to the United States Capitol.

“I don’t like the division,” Mr. Macey, 63, said. “I don’t like the standstill. We need something to get accomplished.”

For so many voters in this November of discontent, the state of the union is just … blech.

Despite many signals that things are improving — the stock market is hitting record highs, hiring is accelerating sharply with 531,000 jobs added in October, workers are earning more, and Covid hospitalizations and deaths are dropping from their autumn peaks — many Americans seem stuck in a pandemic hangover of pessimism.

More than 60 percent of voters in opinion surveys say that the country is heading in the wrong direction — a national funk that has pummeled Mr. Biden’s approval ratings and fueled a backlash against Democrats that could cost them control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections.

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More than 60 percent of voters in opinion surveys say that the country is heading in the wrong direction — a national funk that has pummeled Mr. Biden’s approval ratings.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

In more than two dozen interviews across the country, voters ticked off a snowballing list of grievances that had undercut their faith in a president who ran on a pledge of normalcy and competence: The chaotic, deadly pullout from Afghanistan. A spike in migrants crossing the southern border. A legislative agenda stymied by Republican opposition and Democratic infighting.

The complaints are not just coming from conservatives. Voters who supported Mr. Biden said they had grown dispirited about his ability to muscle through campaign pledges to address climate change, voting rights and economic fairness while also confronting rising prices and other disruptions to daily life exacerbated by the pandemic.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Daniel Sanchez, who lost his teaching contract at a community college in suburban Phoenix when enrollment plunged during the pandemic. Now, he is making minimum wage at an organic market and searching for full-time teaching work.

Mr. Sanchez, 36, said he still supported Mr. Biden, echoing many Democratic voters who said they believed the president was being unfairly blamed by Republicans and the news media for problems beyond his control, such as the price of gasoline or Covid spikes among Americans who refuse to get vaccinated.

But Mr. Sanchez has grown exasperated with the endless melodrama in Washington as a Democratic effort to confront climate change and strengthen the social safety net has stalled amid intraparty disputes. He is particularly frustrated with two moderate Democratic senators — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Mr. Sanchez’s own senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

“It seems like the answers are right in front of them, and people are willing to do nothing about it,” he said.

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Daniel Sanchez has grown exasperated with the endless melodrama in Washington as a Democratic effort to confront climate change and strengthen the social safety net has stalled. Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Mr. Biden came into office vowing to “build back better.” But voters said little was getting built as Democrats fight over multitrillion-dollar measures to strengthen the country’s social safety net and improve physical infrastructure. Normal life was not back, and might never be. And voters said so many things just felt worse.

It is not just the federal government they blame. Trash is piling up on city streets because of a dearth of garbage haulers. School bus services are being canceled and delayed for want of drivers. Americans who have been hurt economically by the pandemic are still struggling to get rental assistance and unemployment benefits, sometimes months after applying.

“Our political system — it’s almost completely a failure,” said Carla Haney, a 65-year-old swimming instructor who has yet to receive about 14 weeks of unemployment benefits from the State of Florida that she applied for in May 2020. “I don’t see it getting better at all.”

With the global supply chain gummed up, voters around the Phoenix metro area said they were paying the price in lost money and wasted time. A restaurant chef in Phoenix is once again struggling to buy paper plates and napkins. A plumbing supplier in Tempe is losing commissions because he cannot fill orders.

And at gas stations across the country, drivers cringe at paying an average of $3.40 a gallon — prices that have risen by more than $1 a gallon from a year ago.

“Everything goes up, and pay pretty much stays the same,” said Brandon Hendrix, 39, of Athens, Ga., who works in security for an auto plant.

Even with the unemployment rate at 4.6 percent, falling but still above its prepandemic levels, Mr. Hendrix, said job security is not his top concern. Instead, it is the rising of prices for “gas, grocery stores, rent — just about everything you can think of” that worry him. Still, he blames much of the country’s grim state on the pandemic, Republicans’ obstruction and relentless criticism of the Biden administration.

“They instigated too much division,” Mr. Hendrix said of Republicans. “Basically, they’ve kind of boiled it down to politics and power play. They’re not really solving issues. They’re just keeping you divided so they can do whatever they want.”

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A gas station in Queens. The rising of prices for “gas, grocery stores, rent — just about everything you can think of,” worry Brandon Hendrix, 39, of Athens, Ga.Credit…Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for The New York Times

Worries around trash piling up, flights canceled because of staff shortages and rising grocery prices may be small compared with a global pandemic that has killed five million people, or a fast-warming climate that has contributed to floods inundating towns and wildfires burning the American West. But they are stuck like pebbles in voters’ shoes: Tiny, but impossible to ignore.

“Every day or so, my younger one will say, ‘Dad, there’s no bus. Can you come get me?'” said John Radanovich, 58, the father of an eighth-grader and an 11th-grader in Lake Worth, Fla., near West Palm Beach.

Mr. Radanovich, a Democrat, said he believed the increasingly vocal dissatisfaction in the country — on vivid displays as Republicans won the governorship in Virginia, flipped a Democratic State House seat in San Antonio and routed Democrats in New York’s suburbs — were likely to doom Democrats in 2022.

“There’s so much hatred,” Mr. Radanovich said, adding that he hoped to leave the country once his younger son finished high school. “You can see it in the schools, the diet, our lifestyle, the stress. How expensive things are. It’s a mystery that life has become so much worse in the U.S. It’s just worse and worse and worse.”

In Colorado, where hospitals are being overwhelmed by a new surge of largely unvaccinated patients, some communities have reimposed mask mandates. Amanda Rumsey said she was losing patience with the shifting requirements that she worried were now simply antagonizing a divided electorate.

Ms. Rumsey, a crisis therapist who has seen a spike in young and teenage patients with suicidal thoughts during the pandemic, voted for Mr. Biden, but now found herself unhappy with his leadership.

“It doesn’t seem like he is doing anything to help us be more unified,” she said as she stood outside a Walmart in the fast-growing suburban community of Lafayette, north of Denver.

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Protesting against a proposed mask mandate in Anchorage in September.Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

As the world slumps toward a third year of the pandemic, through more mask fights and breakthrough infections and grim new death milestones, some mental health experts said the country’s sour political mood reflected a condition called languishing. Different from depression or hopelessness, it is a sense of stagnant drift.

Even if the pandemic does ease, many Americans said they were resigned to another year of polarized politics. One example they cited was the prospect of Republicans making schools the heart of their midterm-election strategy, seizing on divisions over how students should learn about race and how teachers should confront the pandemic in the classroom.

“It’s just not a civilized country,” said Ted Laarkamp, 76, a retired businessman from Media, Penn., just outside Philadelphia. “It’s just a bunch of people that think they can go it alone — like a bunch of lone rangers. Nobody trusts anybody; everything is a conspiracy.”

The atmosphere was gray as Mr. Laarkamp and other shoppers shared their views outside a supermarket in downtown Media.

“It’s unfortunate because we have serious tasks ahead of us, and we need all hands on deck,” said Eve Miari, 44, who voted for Mr. Biden but faulted him for publicly criticizing Americans who resisted mask and vaccine mandates. “We are talking about getting out of a global pandemic and resolving big issues like climate change. You can’t have everybody divided.”

Reporting was contributed by Jon Hurdle, James Dobbins, Anne Berryman, Stephen Deere, and Charlie Brennan.

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