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The long, dark tea time of the American political soul

at 03:01 PM ET, 09/21/2011

Americans are in a historically bad mood.

The question for candidates — from President Obama and the men and women running to replace him all the way down to people seeking state and local office in 2012 — is how to you win elections in an era where people feel so dismal about politics?

In an apocalyptic web ad released on Wednesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry embraces the “grim is good” approach to politics and dubs Obama “President Zero” for the struggling economy and the lack of new jobs created by it.

The evidence is overwhelming that voters know something is seriously amiss and are ready to punish politicians for it.

In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, a majority of Americans haven't said the country is headed in the “right direction” in eight years. Ugh.

The right direction number in the Washington Post/ABC News September poll stood at 20 percent and has been at 50 percent only one time since May 2003. Sigh.

Bloomberg’s consumer confidence measure, which runs from -100 to +100, has been between -40 and -50 since mid-2008. (It’s currently at -49.3).

Eight of ten Americans say the country is currently in the grips of a recession, according to new numbers from a USA Today/Gallup poll.

Like Perry, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has also taken a gloom-and-doom approach, warning that the country stands on the precipice of disaster if changes — particularly one in the White House — aren’t made soon.

“We stand near the threshold of profound economic misery,” said Romney in a speech late last month. “Four more years on the same political path could prove disastrous.”

It is, of course, easier for people like Perry and Romney, who are running for president rather than actually occupying the office, to paint a dark vision of the country’s state.

The challenge is far more difficult for President Obama who must pull off the most difficult of political tricks: 1) Acknowledge the ongoing struggles with the economy and empathize with what the average person is going through and 2) find ways to sound notes of optimism that things can and will get better.

Here’s how Obama tackled that unique conundrum during a speech at a fundraiser in New York City last night.

Part 1: “The deck kept getting stacked against middle-class Americans, and nobody in Washington seemed willing or able to do anything about it,” Obama said.

Part 2: “We’ve got a long way to go to make sure that everybody in this country gets a fair shake, that the vision that mobilized us in 2008 is realized -- making sure that every American has a chance to get ahead. And that’s where I need your help.”

It’s the best/only option he has to get re-elected at a time of such deep economic pessimism. (We wrote this morning about the idea that Obama might actually be the underdog heading into his re-election race.)

The challenge for Obama, of course, is to find the sweet spot that exists between too pessimistic (we give you the re-election race of Jimmy Carter in 1980) and so optimistic as to seem out of touch (George H.W. Bush in 1992).

And, the truth is that such a sweet spot may simply not exist — particularly among independents — in an economic and electoral climate like this one.

One needs only look at the results of the last two midterm elections for proof of how this long run of pessimism is playing out in actual votes. In 2006, independents voted for Democratic candidates for the House by 18 points. Four years later, independents went for Republican candidates by 19 points.

It’s also why the last three elections have been so-called wave elections where we see large-scale change up and down the ballot based on a national set of issues.

Frustrated about the inability of the party in power to turn things around, independents, and even some partisans, simply switch allegiance — voting for the other guy (or gal) to see if they can do any better. When they don’t, the vote switches back. Wave follows wave.

That’s a dangerous trend for Obama who won independents by nine points in 2008 but has seen his numbers among unaffiliated voters fade badly of late — especially in swing states. (A Quinnipiac University poll in Virginia last week found just 29 percent of independents approved of the job Obama is doing.)

Everywhere you look it’s clear that we are living in political times like none other in modern memory. That means that tried and true political strategies may just not work anymore — or at least in 2012.

Convincing a country badly worn out from an extended economic decline to take (another) chance on politics/politicians is no easy task. But it’s the challenge before President Obama and the Republicans hoping to unseat him — not to mention candidates for Senate, governor and House in 2012.

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