Whether it’s Obama or Romney, the political divide is likely to remain


McClatchy Newspapers

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.”

Anita Kumar and Franco Ordonez contributed.

Email:sthomma@mcclatchydc.com; twitter @stevethomma

Read more Politics Wires stories from the Miami Herald

Former state Sen. Steve Russell, left, candidate for the Republican nomination to a congressional seat in central Oklahoma, gestures during his victory speech at his watch party in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. His wife Cindy is pictured behind him. Russell defeated Corporation Commission member Patrice Douglas for the GOP nomination and will meet McAffrey, who defeated retired professor Tom Guild in the Democratic runoff, and three independent candidates in the Nov. 4 general election.

    Florida, Arizona pick nominees for governor

    Voters cast ballots Tuesday in primary elections in Florida, Arizona, Vermont and Oklahoma. Highlights:

  • Journalist killing highlights role of freelancers

    Journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Theo Curtis all shared one thing in common when they were captured by Islamic militants in Syria, the title "freelance journalist."

State treasurer and former CEO Doug Ducey speaks to supporters as he claims victory on winning the Republican primary for Arizona governor Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, in Phoenix.  Ducey defeated the other Republican candidates and will face Democrat Fred DuVal, who was unopposed in the primary, in November.

    Crist makes Florida comeback bid as 4 states vote

    If there were any doubts that former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist would be accepted by Florida Democrats, they were cast aside as he overwhelmingly earned the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott on a day when four states chose candidates for statewide office.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category