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In D.C., angst is at fretful high

  • Article by: STEVE HENDRIX
  • Washington Post
  • November 4, 2012 - 9:21 PM

WASHINGTON - Kay Cook needs to relax. For her, as for many Washingtonians, the stress levels of 2012 have approached Vise-Grip levels, as a city that lives on national politics and federal budgets hurtles toward a too-close-to-call election and a "fiscal cliff."

"Sometimes I feel like I can barely breathe," said Cook, who was one of 250 people who gathered at a Bethesda, Md., church last week in a bid to replace the harsh buzz of the moment with the soothing hum of group meditation.

But even Zen-ful Washingtonians find it hard to chill right now. After the session, several of the practitioners went right back to fretting -- about the election (most are Democrats), about federal spending (many are bureaucrats), about the poor, about health care, about "everything."

"I'm so anxious about everything right now, I haven't even been able to meditate," said Cook, who lives in Washington and volunteers for the Obama campaign.

A city on edge

If cities have moods, then Washington is in a bad one. Ask the massage therapists, the bartenders, the career counselors and the psychologists. They're getting an earful from a city on edge.

And if a nail-biter election mixed with a budget battle royal wasn't enough of a perfect storm, an actual perfect storm hit the East Coast last Monday

This is a season of not knowing important things. Federal managers don't know what they will have left to manage if negotiators fail to reach a deal to avoid massive spending cuts Jan. 1. Federal workers don't know if they will have jobs. Federal contractors have already drawn up contingency layoff lists. Campaign partisans on both sides are biting their nails.

In the fourth year of a grinding economic downturn, of course, plenty of people are more worried about their next rent check than the next president. But even those who are indifferent to politics can't escape it. In the final months of a bruising campaign, with millions spent on a relentless loop of falling-sky political ads, the electoral struggle now infuses everything.

"We might be there to talk about a marital issue or anxiety, and there's Mitt Romney or Barack Obama in the therapy room with us," said Michael Obershneider, an Ashburn, Va., psychotherapist.

Numbers are down

At the Sine Irish Pub & Restaurant, a Defense Department hangout in Arlington, Va., manager Marybeth Brown said the threat of massive cuts has dampened not just spirits but business. There were still guys in flight suits speaking in acronyms to guys in ties one recent afternoon, but the monthly numbers are down. The military promotion parties and other private functions have nearly dried up.

"The last time we had a stretch like this was when there was a threat of a government slowdown," Brown said.

At a table near the bar, Brett Marvin, 37, sat alone with a bourbon and cynicism on the rocks. Happy hour was grumpy hour. The civilian combat analyst for the Marine Corps said he was fed up with politics, posturing and this "maddening" way to run a government.

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