WASHINGTON, DC // Last July 4, Tamer Rifai spent US$20 on fireworks, including one that lasted an impressive eight minutes. But this year, amid the worst job market in decades, the 26-year-old Lebanese-American said even that may be too much.
"If I had money to blow, sure," said Mr Rifai, 26, who graduated from college in Maryland in December but still has not found full-time work. "And buying fireworks really is 'blowing money'." US unemployment is at its highest level since 1983, thousands of people have lost their homes and consumer confidence is low. Against such a backdrop, it is not surprising that some Americans are rethinking how they mark Independence Day, celebrated in the country since 1777.
Mr Rifai, who was born in Lebanon and grew up in the US, said he may watch the government-organised fireworks, one of the biggest in the country. In many small and mid-size cities, however, firework shows have been cancelled or scaled back. The LA Times reported last month that nearly 50 cash-strapped cities nationwide were forgoing firework festivities, choosing instead to retain jobs or, in the case of one, give the money to food banks. The news caused a ripple of outrage, and at least one of the cities has arranged for a show purchased with donations from residents, businesses and organisations. Some firework vendors and organisers are benefiting from a renewed sense of patriotism this Independence Day, driven by enthusiasm for a popular new president, Barack Obama, who is making good on his campaign promises of change. Dorothea and Jim Brady are hanging a US flag outside their house to mark the event this year, something the Washington, couple have not done since 2001.
"I'm proud to be an American again. I have a leader who I can respect, who I believe respects people around the world, who is a peacemaker," said the 62-year-old Mrs Brady, who displayed the flag after the attacks of September 11 but kept it properly folded in its original box for the remainder of George W Bush's presidency. "I was mad at Bush because he made it sound like supporting his war and supporting our troops were synonymous. We support our troops but we don't support the invasion of Iraq. The flag became a symbol, I'm sorry to say, I wasn't proud of."
Mr Brady, 62, said: "The US that was being represented to the world didn't really represent the deepest feelings of Americans. Now I think there's something to celebrate." While about 65 per cent of Americans approve of the job Mr Obama is doing, only 47 per cent say they feel the country is on the right track, and 50 per cent feel it is on the wrong track, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll. Yet, even for those Americans with grave concerns about Mr Obama and the changes he is making, the Fourth of July show must go on.
RJ Sabol, 37, from Pennsylvania, said he was concerned about some of Mr Obama's policies, such as the bailout of large corporations. But, he still had plans for July 4. "I love this country - everything about it. So am I going to have fun? You bet." "People still want their Fourth of July fireworks, and they'll sacrifice other things to accommodate their fireworks,"said Tom Stiner of PyroShows Inc, the Tennessee company that is conducting the firework show on the National Mall in Washington. He said the company had seen "a slight scale-back, but not to the extent that the rest of the economy has slowed down".
PyroShows is planning the same Washington show as last year, set against the national monuments. Susan Martin, a US park ranger, said police anticipate the usual crowd. In Washington, fireworks can be sold for two weeks a year. All sales displays must be packed up by midnight on July 5. Mike Booth, who runs a fireworks stand in Washington, says he's surprised to find that he is on track in terms of sales this year. "I thought it was going to be worse," he said.
Mr Booth said his products are actually slightly more expensive than last year because the manufacturers raised their prices, but people are still buying. And they always buy more when the fourth falls on a Saturday, as it does this year. * The National