WASHINGTON—Maybe it's the dog days, but three friends recently got in touch within a 24-hour period to catch up. Or more like it, to catch their breath.
One reported the onset of panic attacks. Another is seeking treatment for depression. The third began an e-mail asking for help with: "Reports of my employment have been greatly exaggerated."
The first two were women, 40-something and 50. The third is a man in his 50s. They all have one thing in common: No job.
No one is starving yet, but "yet" seems less remote than it once did.
"What if I can't find a job? Ever?" asked "Sandra." She laughed, but it was nervous laughter. Sandra isn't at all sure things will work out.
Though mired in the unemployment doldrums, none of my friends fits into the categories of outraged citizens known as "teabaggers" or "townhallers." Teabaggers are conservatives who staged tax protests earlier this year. Townhallers are those now confronting congressional leaders as they return home to chat it up with constituents.
Meetings have become explosive events punctuated with shouting. On Long Island, N.Y., Rep. Tim Bishop had to be escorted by police to his car out of concern for his safety. Subsequently, Bishop temporarily suspended town hall events in his district.
Generally considered a small fringe group, the demonstrators have been described derisively by Democratic leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed that some were "carrying swastikas." Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York have dismissed the protesters as irrelevant.
It's easy to disregard such people, especially as reports surface that some of the protests have been coordinated by FreedomWorks, the Washington lobbying group of Dick Armey, the conservative former House majority leader. Also, a Connecticut fellow named Bob MacGuffie and four friends who formed a political action committee last year have been distributing a memo instructing people on how to infiltrate town-hall gatherings and harass Democratic members of Congress.
Even so, I'm not so sure these protests are insignificant. Are my three friends really so far removed from such expressions of acute frustration? Lately, they have a new understanding of how uncertainty, complicated by unemployment and growing debt, morphs into anger.
And then, perchance, to rage?
Sandra feels it.
"Angst about health care is real because people are just anxious in general. They don't have jobs, and those who do are worried about losing them. They're saying, 'Holy crap, I've got $10,000 on my credit card and you're talking about change? Guess what, dude, I can't handle any more change right now.'"
Some Republican opponents of health care reform can be justifiably charged with using fear tactics, such as allowing the elderly to think they're going to have to pick a death date under Obamacare. Rush Limbaugh has said, for instance, that "people at a certain age with certain diseases will be deemed not worth the investment, and ... they'd give them some pain pills, and let them loop out till they die."
But it's really not necessary to scare people with science-fiction scenarios to inspire opposition to an overhaul of health care that would add $239 billion to the federal budget deficit over the next 10 years (according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office). This would be in addition to the $11 trillion in deficits already expected between 2009 and 2019 under President Obama's budget plan.
Why would anyone be upset?
The rest of August promises to be a battlefield of dueling ads for and against health care reform, all of which will likely add to the nation's free-floating anxiety. The crux of this anxiety is a loss of trust, which may be reflected in Obama's plummeting job approval. A new poll by Quinnipiac University shows that just half of those surveyed approve of the president's performance, down seven points in the past month.
Here's how a Florida real estate appraiser summed up the zeitgeist: "People don't believe the politicians or the government stats when they know five couples who are losing their house and cars. ... Basically, it's a total disconnect from government, and government cannot influence their decisions unless they give them money, yet every giveaway reinforces their lack of faith."
The town hall protests may be orchestrated, but nobody had to manufacture the anger on display. With unemployment at 9.4 percent, the dog days are beginning to feel like the dogs of war.
Congress and Obama might want to take note.
Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kathleenparker(at)washpost.com.