What ever happened to the American Dream?

Has the white picket fence lost its luster? The US elections campaigns are playing up the American Dream but for many in hard economic times, that dream has vanished.

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Rob and Marina certainly don’t look like deadbeats. They are fairly young, extremely well educated, and both are working. They have a lovely townhouse in central Philadelphia, and are married with two beautiful children who are doing well in school and share Rob’s musical gift.

Sounds like the embodiment of the American Dream, doesn’t it?

But for all practical purposes Rob and Marina are bankrupt; they are just waiting to be evicted from the townhouse they are no longer able to pay for; they have defaulted on half of their student loans, and the future is looking more and more grim.

“Our financial picture is pretty dismal,” admits Rob.

Their story began nearly 20 years ago, in Moscow, Russia.

Rob, an American originally from Ohio, developed a passion for Russian music and literature, and went abroad to study. There he met Marina, a studious, hardworking young woman who had graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in English literature, and, when they met, was working as office manager for a major American news bureau.

They fell in love, got married, and, eventually, made their way to the United States. Thousands of couples just like them have traveled the same path.

But Rob and Marina were more ambitious than many. Marina wanted to pursue a career in international relations, and obtained a master’s degree from Tufts University’s prestigious Fletcher School.

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Then she accompanied Rob to Durham, North Carolina, where they both received law degrees from Duke University. Rob then went on to complete an additional program in tax law from New York University.

“We are incredibly pedigreed,” he laughed wryly.

Diplomas in hand, they moved to Philadelphia, where they both scored good jobs — Marina in international law, Rob doing something that drew on all of his talents, including his fluency in Russian.

“I was helping Ukrainian oligarchs launder money by investing in commercial real estate,” he explained. “It was a lot of fun.”

It was also pretty lucrative. The couple bought a townhouse in downtown Philadelphia for close to $800,000, and set about raising their children and living their dreams.

Then — disaster.

Ukrainian oligarchs were no longer interested in commercial real estate once the market crashed in 2008, and Rob’s job evaporated. Marina was also “downsized,” and the two found themselves in hot water pretty quickly.

“We went from over $300K a year to zero overnight,” said Rob. “It was pretty drastic.”

At the same time, of course, the housing market collapsed. Their townhouse, which they had had for just a few years, lost more than a third of its value overnight.

“It’s evaluated at under $500,000 now,” says Rob. “We have over $200,000 in ‘negative equity.’ Not that we can pay the mortgage anyway.”

They also owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

Rob is now doing temporary work at various law firms. Marina has to weigh her choices; she has to make sure that whatever she makes in a temporary job will exceed the costs of childcare.

“We are just existing day to day,” she says.

As the presidential election nears, the American Dream will be front and center in the campaign.

Each of the candidates — now almost certain to be President Barack Obama running against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney — will try to rehabilitate a concept that has taken quite a beating over the past few years.

Romney has been unapologetic about his wealth and prosperity — the result, he insists, of hard work in the land of opportunity.

In his April 24 speech “A Better America Begins Tonight,” which was, in effect, his kickoff for the general election, Romney sounded what will undoubtedly be one of the major themes of his campaign.

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“I love this country, where someone like my dad, who grew up poor and never graduated from college, could pursue his dreams and work his way up to running a great car company. Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of the state in which he once sold paint from the trunk of his car.”

America, says Romney, is a place where “each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter because we had a gift that no one else in the world shared. We were Americans.”

Obama has taken that away from us, he implied, but Romney can bring it back.

Obama, for his part, rang the same bell in his appearance at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio on April 18. He obliquely slammed his opponent while extolling the possibilities of a great nation.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he told the cheering audience. “Michelle wasn’t. But somebody gave us a chance.”

His policies, he explained, would help supply that chance to the millions of Americans now out of work, under water, and despairing of a better future.

But people are fast losing patience with promises; They need a lifeline.

During his brief turn in the spotlight, Rick Santorum often uttered his simplistic prescription for prosperity:

“Work hard, finish high school, and get married before you have children,” he said in numerous debates, speeches, and town hall rallies. That, he insisted, would guarantee an income “above the national average.”

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Well then, Rob and Marina should be on top of the world.

But they fell victim to policies and practices they could neither foresee nor avoid.

In Ron Suskind’s brilliant analysis of the Wall Street fiasco, “Confidence Men,” the author takes us on a thrilling if infuriating ride through the years of unbridled greed, shady financial dealings, and complete lack of accountability that led us to where we are today.

The banks were too big to fail, and were, for the most part, bailed out. The bankers who caused the crash took their multimillion-dollar golden parachutes and retired.

But millions of others were not so fortunate.

Couples like Rob and Marina, who tried to do everything right, who followed all the rules, thought they were climbing a solid ladder to the top.

Instead, they wait for foreclosure on their house — they stopped making payments months ago — and plot how to extract themselves from an increasingly hopeless situation.

Unless something changes soon, they may be forced to leave the country. Rob has a Canadian passport, courtesy of a Montreal-born mother. The American Dream may soon turn into a Canadian reverie.

“Socialized medicine, free education and they will pay for Marina to learn French,” said Rob, gazing around his small but elegant garden and sighing. “Sounds good to me.”

In PoliticsObama winsDevelopment & EducationHighway 2012.

Tagged: United States.