WASHINGTON -- "Happy new year," I said to the long-haul trucker as we arrived simultaneously at the door of a service station just off Interstate 70 near Frederick, Md. The temperature was in the teens; the wind was gusting at more than 30 miles per hour; and his 18-wheel rig was covered with residue of the blizzard he had driven through on his way west.
"What's to be happy about?" was his frosty response to my cheery salutation. He continued in a tone more frigid than the weather: "Have you seen the price of diesel fuel? It's going to cost you 50 bucks to fill up your SUV. It's going to run me almost a grand. I'm an independent trucker. My wife lost her job last year when the company where she worked for 15 years shut down. I'm hauling Chinese-made auto parts from Baltimore to Indianapolis and then a load of scrap steel to California for shipment to China. My wife and our three kids are counting on me. And the clowns in Washington are trying to put me out of business."
Through beads of condensation on the store's window, I could see his big Freightliner sleeper cab idling at the pump -- and a neon sign advertising diesel fuel at $3.26 a gallon. As we filled paper cups of coffee, I tried to cheer him up by suggesting that "things will get better after the new Congress is convened on Jan. 5."
The trucker shrugged and concluded our brief conversation with a stark warning: "They better, 'cause if they don't make things right, we've had it. Our oldest son is a Marine on his second tour in Afghanistan. He was going to stay in the Corps, but since this 'don't ask, don't tell' thing, his wife wants him to get out when he comes home. Our daughter is working her way through college but couldn't find a job last semester. My wife is now home-schooling our 12-year-old because half his sixth-grade public-school classmates can't speak English, and most of his classes had a Spanish-language 'translation teacher.' Anyone who thinks Congress can fix all this is naive. Happy new year to you and your family, Colonel."
Reflecting on this somber discussion, I think the 18-wheel nomad's dark prophecy may well be right. Our country does indeed face enormous challenges -- both domestic and foreign -- many of them exacerbated by what the Obama administration and the 111th Congress did and failed to do. The most visible indicators: glaring price displays above gas stations and the increasing number of foreclosure notices posted on homes and commercial real estate across America. There is an unfortunate correlation in these signs of the times.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the retail price for gasoline broke the $3-per-gallon barrier in July 2006 and again in November 2007. By June 2008, when it topped $4 per gallon, our nation's longest, deepest economic slide since the Great Depression was well under way, and the unemployment rate was accelerating toward its current high of 9.8 percent.
Thanks to a devalued U.S. dollar and the Obama administration's self-imposed ban on domestic petroleum exploitation, we're poised to exacerbate our problems. Reputable forecasters predict the price of motor fuel will be more than $4 again by midsummer. That, of course, will drive up the cost of everything we eat, use and do. It also will make it more expensive for those with jobs to get to work, pay for schooling, buy homes, meet mortgage payments or even rent an apartment.
New homes and commercial structures are among the few things that still carry a valid "Made in America" label. But selling an existing home is becoming increasingly problematic, and there is a paucity of startup businesses to fill vacant commercial property. The National Association of Realtors notes that nationwide, average home prices continue to drop by more than 1 percent per month. All this means fewer private-sector construction jobs in the year ahead.
Worse still, The Conference Board notes that despite a spike in retail sales in December, overall "consumer confidence" -- the key indicator for future economic growth -- remains near record lows. And now retail employers who hired temporary workers at Thanksgiving in preparation for the Christmas rush are laying them off again. Predictions of 11-13 percent unemployment by the end of 2011 no longer are deemed to be unreasonable.
Can the 112th Congress overcome the inane policies of its predecessors and the Obama administration to alter this gloomy outlook? My trucker-prophet on I-70 didn't think so. John Boehner, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, and his GOP majority believe they can. Their New Year's resolutions include promises to mend Washington's free-spending ways and rein in Obamacare. But there is much more that needs to be done. Urgent repairs for American energy policy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil would have a profound, positive impact on the U.S. economy.
Of course, all this needs to be done without promising more than they can deliver. In the year ahead, Boehner and his colleagues must avoid emulating the characters in Charles Dickens' 1861 novel, "Great Expectations." Even Pip came to understand that unfulfilled expectations are the greatest cause of anger on the planet. Happy new year, indeed.