Dear Mr. President:
Bryan Stone, 60, of Jacksonville FL, has something to say about the way America used to be that he wouldn't mind you hearing.
"Everybody knew what the rules were," he says. "That's not true anymore."
(Obama-Hugo Chavez Masonic handshake)
Here, then, is one snapshot -- an interpretation of how it feels in America right now. It's broad-brush and subjective, as any snapshot of a nation so big and diverse must be.
Mr. President: Americans feel deeply uncertain about the state of the nation right now. Very few of us seem to know what the rules are anymore -- or even where we are going. Just this past week, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll found that 57 percent of Americans polled think the country's on the wrong track. Not as bad as October 2011, when it was 74 percent. But not very optimistic, either.
The people are fragmented, consumed, distracted, sometimes paralyzed by choices. Look at the comments section below any major news story posted on the web and you'll see your countrymen denouncing each other in bulk. Is this the glorious mess of democracy or a sign of something uglier?
Last month after Newtown, for example, we wept in disbelief and pain for a few days and then many of us set to shouting. Regulate guns, insisted one side, and you'll stop children from dying. Take law-abiding citizens' guns away, insisted the other, and you place us in greater danger and violate one of the nation's most fundamental rights.
(Romney making Masonic sign)
Simple, right? Just like these easy labels: Liberals are big-government-loving socialists who can't stop taxing and wasting, damn them all. Conservatives are gun-loving, callous warmongers who don't care about the common people. Pathetic.
OVERCOMING LEFT & RIGHT "STEREOTYPES"
"When we go around perpetuating those stereotypes, it furthers that sense that we're so polarized. When I don't think that we really are," says one of your constituents, Liz Owens Boltz, a web content administrator in Sylvania, Ohio. She's an independent who has voted Republican in the past but voted for you.
This is part of the problem, Mr. President, the contradiction of our age. We are multitudes, yet we have built a story of clustering in two camps. You inherited deep divisions, and you say you are trying to make things better. But, to hear your adversaries tell it, you have made them worse. If only there were one clear answer flashing in neon above the highway. How American that would be. But there are many answers, and none. And we don't even seem to have the language to discuss them.
"I'm looking for a little more thoughtfulness and discussion and compromise and a little less knee-jerk political posturing," Boltz says. "We tend to treat our government and politics like we treat our bodies -- we don't see things being a problem until it's an emergency. But preventative care and long-term solutions, it's a little less sexy. If we're all in this black/white, yes/no mindset, how do we make progress?"
Instead, every statement by just about anyone has 1,000 opinionated offspring, each with a globally connected digital loudspeaker. Never before in American history have so many been able to shout down so many others so quickly. Put geographically, it's become harder and harder to view our experiment in democracy as a land mass; more and more, we're a series of small islands separated by choppy waters.
"What would you really put into an American time capsule today?" wonders John Baick, a historian at Western New England University.
(Obama's pal Chavez embraces Ahmadinejad)
"Our time capsule would be so filled with so many different things and so little in common with each other. There's so little notion of a consensus. So little notion of what America is, and so little notion of who belongs in the snapshot."
What is that like from inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to consider the sound of 300 million opinions? How do you even begin to parse the problems? How do you take people who are accustomed to answering true-or-false questions and lead them through the high weeds of multiple choice?
"Those connective tissues that were there, they're gone -- and they're not being replaced," says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, which studies American life in Muncie, Ind., and other towns like it in the Midwest. "The withering of those connections," he says, "leaves people with a sense that they're at sea, they're on their own."
Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted