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Salena Zito: Thriving D.C.'s bubble will burst

| Monday, May 6, 2013, 1:43 p.m.

WASHINGTON

Eighteen Starbucks shops can be found in the three-mile walk from DuPont Circle to the U.S. Capitol. Not one of them had a line less than seven people deep on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

Twenty-one construction sites filled with workers on girders and cranes towering over whole city blocks can be found on the same walk.

Commerce bursts from every angle of this city: small businesses packed with shoppers, hair salons charging more than the monthly mortgage payment on my first house for a cut-and-blow-dry, and main as well as side streets clogged with traffic.

America's capital seems bubble-wrapped in its own vibrant economic boom, while great chunks of the nation struggle with uncertainty about how to keep the engine going.

In fact, six of the 10 wealthiest American counties are Washington suburbs.

Washington once was the manifest of power. Now you can add “center of wealth” to its portfolio, crystallizing the elite institutional disconnect between it and the rest of the country.

Nearly six months have passed since the last presidential campaign promises were preached. Six months of waiting outside of the bubble for the Obama administration to fulfill passionate vows inserted into soaring speeches that pledged to create a million new manufacturing jobs in this term, to help big factories and small businesses double their exports, and to invest in advanced manufacturing.

All were promises made by the president, over and over again, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The outcome has not matched the promises, not even closely.

Manufacturing has stalled in the last three months, with only pockets of growth in certain sectors. A report last week by the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index showed contraction, with manufacturing job-growth hitting its plateau before Election Day last year.

And what about all of those job promises?

A Labor Department report on Friday showed marginally improved job growth but manufacturing jobs remain sluggish.

So, while Washington basks in its roaring economy, debating such issues as gay marriage, guns and how to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal aliens, the rest of the country asks, “Hi, remember us? Where are the jobs? Can we focus on the jobs?”

The lack of attention given to the economy affects Main Streeters' very existence in a way that Washington does not understand. John Smith may have a job, but what about the impact in his community when his neighbors are out of work, or struggling to piece two lower-paying jobs together to make ends meet?

Such uncertainty affects spending habits as well. Consumers are behaving as though they are living paycheck to paycheck, because they don't know what is coming down the pike. That lack of spending means that tourism, travel and entertainment suffer; small shops, restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, service stations all eventually feel the pinch. Just ask anyone who owns a business in destination points across the country, and they'll tell you business is down.

Our economic recovery since 2009 has been sluggish, with few bright spots. Yet, when Americans went into the voting booths last year (if they did), they believed President Obama's rhetoric on class warfare and that he had their best interests at heart.

That has not played out six months later. A recovery is going on in this country, but most of the beneficiaries seem to be living right inside the Beltway.

And the polls back that up: Last month's Associated Press survey showed that only one in four Americans think their own financial situation will improve in the next year, and 52 percent of us disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy.

The centralized power and wealth in our nation's capital are becoming so disconnected from the rest of this country that it is palpable to everyone except those who live in Washington.

In most people's lives, the driving issue is economic security. Washington's obsession is with social and cultural issues that drive bigger wedges between Us and Them.

It's only a matter of time before the rest of America's complaints will burst Washington's bubble.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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