INDIANA, Pa. – Turn the corner onto Philadelphia Street in this small Western Pennsylvania town, and you might be on the main street of Bedford Falls, the mythical town in Frank Capra’s Christmas classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life.
"This is a town where you hear people tell each other ‘Merry Christmas’ without ever considering if it is politically correct," said Chris Carter of Dayton, Ohio, here for the day on business.
Earlier Carter, 30, posed for a picture with the statue of Jimmy Stewart, Indiana’s hometown everyman.
Carter thinks places like Indiana or his hometown of Dayton are overlooked by the White House and Congress, but "that is okay with me. We thrive in spite of government’s lack of attention to our concerns, not fail."
His sentiment was said without attending a "Tea Party" or railing against an elected official at a town hall – the media’s usual caricature of people who vent against Washington.
Main Street America has entered an era of populism that embraces neither party. People are tired of government bailouts, spending and unchecked corruption, as well as the media’s perceived lack of curiosity or investigation into all three.
They are really tired of being told their values and way of life are not politically correct.
"It has now become a cliché to say that the Washington elite do not understand people that live outside of their bubble, but clichés are not created in a vacuum," says Michael Scott, who owns a photography studio near the high school here.
"Politicians used to be known as statesmen," he explains. "They owned businesses in their hometowns and made about the same amount of money that the average voter did, keeping them in touch with who they represented."
"Today, well, not so much," says Jamey Snyder, one of the proprietors of The Coney Island, a legendary local college bar. Snyder grew up in Elmira, N.Y.; when he married his wife, Dee Dee, he became part of the celebrated McQuaide bar family.
As on many small-town main streets, Philadelphia Street is strung light pole-to-light pole with twinkling Christmas lights and dangling snowflakes. Pedestrians are treated to Jimmy Stewart’s folksy voice at crosswalks, guiding them across intersections.
"We are an hour from everywhere," says Scott Cramer, 33, a loan officer who came here to attend college and never left. "But we may as well be a million miles from Washington."
"Elites like President Obama see government as a force for protecting the little guy," explains University of Arkansas political scientist Robert Maranto. "But regular folks on Main Street see government as incomprehensible and unpredictable."
Even with the best of intentions, government almost always does more harm than good.
When President Obama orders corporate bailouts, a stimulus plan that costs a quarter-million-dollars a job, or talks more about expanding government than reducing unemployment, folks are naturally skeptical, Maranto says.
Most Americans are Jeffersonians: They want limited government – totally at odds with Obama, who wants government without limits.
Much of the nation can buy a nice house for $150,000, live in a safe neighborhood with good schools and in general have peace of mind – and do it on one income.
For folks in places like Indiana, Pa., the economic insecurity of Chicago or both coasts – where people may work two jobs to live in a safe neighborhood – is totally foreign. So the president is pitching his economic policies to people who may care less about money and more about values.
While Indiana County’s voter registration shows Democrats still outnumber Republicans, it is independent voters who have grown lately.
"These are the people that might not attend a Tea Party, but they find them aligned with their concerns," says pollster G. Terry Madonna. "They are less and less happy with government … so they end up unaligned."
This week the president kicks off his first "listening tour" on another Pennsylvania main street.
It may be an effort to turn his slumping popularity – but it might be more effective if he embraced some policies favored by the Jeffersonian middle rather then staged another brilliant speech to pre-selected supporters with pre-screened questions.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]