WASHINGTON -- 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 thats 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 nations 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.
Its getting better, said Heather Atwood, a telecommunications worker from Las Vegas. Four years ago, I was upside down on two houses. Now Im coming out of it.
Shell 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. Thats up a lot from one in 10 on Election Day four years ago, and from two in 10 the day Obama took office. But its 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."