America next week chooses a president. It may not choose a course for the nation.
The country nears Election Day 2012 divided and polarized over the two major party candidates, suggesting a close verdict in either direction and a refusal to coalesce behind one or the other.
President Barack Obama could be defeated, just four years after seizing the presidency with a solid majority amid a promise of hope and change.
Or, he could eke out a narrow victory. If the polls are a guide, he could win with a smaller margin than his first election, making him the first re-elected president to do that in nearly a century.
The division reflects the tepid state of the economy – not growing fast enough to ensure an easy re-election, nor bad enough to guarantee defeat.
But it also reflects the age, a period of political drift since the end of the Cold War that’s seen neither political party able to muster a solid, enduring majority, and an electorate prone to frequent dramatic swings.
Both of the major parties have aggravated the division. Their unprecedented flood of negative ads and attacks have been designed to court their own base of supporters, while further polarizing the country and likely leaving it just as hard to govern after the election as before.
Obama and the Democrats have pilloried Mitt Romney as a tax cheat, a liar and a possible felon. Romney and the Republicans have lambasted Obama as an incompetent and a socialist.
The economy looms over the political landscape, still the dominant issue four years after voters went to the polls with the nation’s finances in freefall, jobs disappearing, pensions shrinking, housing values plummeting.
It is coming back – but slowly and unevenly.
The economy added 171,000 jobs in October, the 25th straight month of job gains. Yet the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent as more people re-entered the labor force to look for work. Since the 1930s, no president has faced the voters with a jobless rate that high.
And only one has managed to win re-election with the rate above 7 percent.
Ronald Reagan prevailed in 1984 with unemployment at 7.2 percent, when the trend was steadily improving. “Morning in America,” his ads proclaimed, and people believed it.
Whether people feel things are getting better – and how much better – is key to whether Obama wins or loses. By several measures, they do feel better. But not great.
“It’s getting better,” said Heather Atwood, a telecommunications worker from Las Vegas. “Four years ago, I was upside down on two houses. Now I’m coming out of it.”
She’ll vote for Obama.
Consumer confidence rose in both September and October, reaching the highest levels of the year.
“Consumers were considerably more positive . . . with improvements in the job market as the major driver,” Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board, an independent business research group, said this week.
About four in 10 Americans say the country is headed in the right direction. That’s up a lot from one in 10 on Election Day four years ago, and from two in 10 the day Obama took office. But it’s not a majority.
And income is down – more since the end of the recession than during it.
“Business had kind of died,” said Kevin Williams, a drywaller from Celina, Ohio, who has cut his crew from four to one and gets smaller jobs now. “People are afraid to spend money."
He’ll vote for Romney.
Obama had hoped for more, of course. He came to office with dreams of being a unifying leader who would transform the country and its politics. He invited comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. The news media pictured him as Franklin D. Roosevelt, marshaling an expansive federal government in a time of economic peril, and building an enduring Democratic majority in the process.
His first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously looked out at an anxious country and saw opportunity for a broad agenda.
“They were wrong,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar and author of several books on the presidency. “They thought the public was malleable and would be responsive to bold initiatives. Instead, it made the public resistant. It did not signal increased liberalism. It did not signal increased support for government activism. . . . When people are losing their jobs, seeing their retirement disappear, they become cautious. They spend less. They’re more cautious about change.”
Presidents dream of sweeping changes that can win them a place in history, but the country since the end of the Cold War has often balked.
Bill Clinton pushed nationalized health care after being elected in 1992. The country rose up and threw his Democrats out of power in the House of Representatives in 1994. He settled into a role of forging agreements with the Republicans, balanced the budget, and left office a popular leader, despite personal scandal.
After the terrorist attacks of 2001, George W. Bush saw a mandate to wage war on terrorists wherever he found them. The country rallied to his side. But after he launched a war on Iraq under what turned out to be false pretenses, he managed to squeak by in a close re-election, and then watched the country turn on him, throw his Republicans out of power in the House in 2006. He returned to Texas two years later, one of the least popular presidents in modern times.
And after Obama pushed through his health care law on a party-line vote in 2010, the voters threw his party out of power in the House in a landslide.
In fact, the country now is on the verge of a possible fourth straight change of course after tossing the Republicans out of the House majority in 2006, the Republicans out of the White House in 2008, and the Democrats out of the House majority in 2010.
“We’ve had three change elections in a row,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “It’s unclear where the country is headed, or what the country is looking for.”