By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 12:33 AM
Travel through the political battlegrounds in these final days before Election 2010, and it becomes clear how much the tenor of this recession-plagued country has changed in the two years since Barack Obama was elected president on his message of hope and change.
A far grimmer mood now pervades the electorate, one shaped not just by the immediacy of the economic distress that has hit virtually every household, but by fears that it might take years for everyone, from the average family to the federal government, to climb out of the hole.
Anger is one word that is often used to describe the electorate this year. But one word alone cannot adequately capture the sentiments expressed by voters on doorsteps and street corners, at community centers or candidate rallies. Along with the anger there is fear, worry, nervousness, disappointment, anxiety and disillusionment.
The impact will be felt Tuesday. Republicans are poised to reap the benefits of the enormous dissatisfaction with the status quo. How deeply and how broadly remains for the voters to decide, but there is little doubt that the outcome will change the balance of power in Washington.
The winners should take little comfort from the results. Dissatisfaction with Republicans also runs deep, and voters have conflicted expectations about what should happen in Washington over the next two years. Politicians of both parties will remain on trial.
Everyone, it seems, has a grievance. Many think the federal government has abandoned the middle class. On the right, many view Obama's policies as creeping - some say galloping - socialism. On the left, many consider the conservatism of some tea-party-backed candidates as far outside the mainstream. Across the spectrum is a widespread feeling that Washington is broken almost beyond repair.
Clark Bisbee was on his way to pick up an absentee ballot in Jackson, Mich., on a recent afternoon when he stopped to talk about the midterm elections. Over the past few years, he said, he has seen the value of his house plummet, the value of his office building plunge, his family travel agency go out of business and his once-healthy IRA shrink.
"I went from maybe having a net worth of a million and a half [dollars] to being underwater on everything," he said as the wind whipped along the nearly empty downtown streets. "I'm angry," he said, repeating the words for emphasis.
Bisbee, 61, a former Republican state legislator, speaks only for himself, but he articulates many of the emotions swirling around the country as the elections approach.
In Colorado, a Vietnam veteran worries about the drift of the nation under Obama and says he has to "stand up for this country one more time." In Ohio, a disappointed Obama supporter says she is nonetheless as fired up as she was in 2008, fearful of what she considers a powerful Republican backlash that will harm the country. In the Detroit suburbs, a woman tells a reporter of her feelings that Washington has helped the rich and the poor but has ignored the middle class.
"The mood is a combination of frustration and fear and desperation and down," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who helps oversee the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. "Everybody wants to talk about it as anger, and anger is certainly there. But it cuts much deeper than the traditional anger that you see in so many elections. This one really goes to the sense of people feeling on the edge and 'How do I make life work?' They're striking out in all directions in order to just change things."
Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster and Hart's partner in the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, said, "The words I would use are 'anxious' and 'worn out.' People are losing hope. . . . We are in a very unusual, long economic crunch that is making people feel very, very anxious. People are used to down times where America bounces back, but they're not seeing it bounce back."
Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center says disillusionment is the most powerful sentiment of the electorate as a whole. Trust in government is at low ebb. Evaluations of Congress's performance are as negative as they have been in two decades. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are rated positively.
"Generally in a wave election, one party comes up as the other goes down," Kohut said. "But Republicans are not well rated." Dissatisfaction extends to the private sector, too, with most institutions drawing low marks. "People are pretty down," he added. "A lot of this is fed by a bad economy, a feeling of hopelessness."Backlash against Obama
The most visible expression has been a conservative backlash against Obama and the Democrats. Brian and Ruth Pias arrived at the Colorado Republican Party headquarters on a recent night to help make calls on behalf of Ken Buck, a tea party favorite who is challenging Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in one of the country's most competitive races.
Brian Pias said he worries about the direction of the nation. "I stood up against communism and Marxism, and that's the way I see our country going," he said. "I put the uniform on in Vietnam, and I've got to do it one more time. Unfortunately, I've got to do it at home."
Joyce Anderson, who lives in Englewood, Colo., was also working the phones that night. Asked what is at stake in the elections, she replied, "Our country." She was willing to give Obama a chance after he was elected. "On a personal level, I liked him," she said.
But over time, she became alarmed. "It looks like we're just spending, spending - trending toward socialism," she said. She hopes a Republican victory Tuesday would bring about a better balance between the two parties. "If they're going to get anything done, it's going to force Obama to come a little more to the center," she added.
On the other side of Denver that night, Susan Sparling waited in a gymnasium for Bennet and former president Bill Clinton to appear. Asked what she thinks is at stake Tuesday, she replied, "Everything that was at stake in the previous presidential election and even more so."
But is this election more important than the one in 2008? "No," she said with a laugh. The last election "accomplished something that was miraculous and may never happen again." She sees apathy among the Democrats and "go, go, go" energy on the right. "It's a scary combination," she said.
Anger and frustration, she said, should not be directed solely at Obama. "It should be directed to the stalemate," Sparling added. "I'm a Democrat, but both Republicans and Democrats - they're all digging in their heels and just staying on one side or the other regardless of the issues."Energized Republicans
Vincent Cavallo was out grocery shopping in Denver when he offered his views on the midterms. An Obama supporter, he says the GOP has obstructed business in Washington. But he said Republicans appear far more energized to vote Tuesday "because there's so much insecurity and people don't know what to do about it." He added: "The standard answer is people are angry, but I think that people are anxious more than they're angry."
In Ohio, Donna Richard fears the Republican tide that has been building. But she, too, is disappointed in Obama. "When he started out, I felt there were going to be some liberal policies that would really move us forward," she said. "I know he can only pass so much, but I really wanted to see a public option" in the health-care law.
Still, her energy has not flagged in these final days. "I am as fired up" as two years ago, she said. "I am just as fired up now because I don't want to see us go back. I was fired up because of [Obama]. Now I want policies."
Marcia Bailey, a Democrat, feels the anxiety all around her in Michigan. "I think they're frightened," she said when asked how she would characterize the mood of people in her hard-hit state. "I've always lived very conservatively financially, my husband and I. We aren't terribly wealthy, but we've always lived comfortably. All of a sudden we had to let go of our second home. We were spending it faster than it was coming in. So people who have been very conservative have been hit. People who have been living on the edge are falling off it."
Bisbee, the former Michigan legislator, said that he will vote "all Republican" on Tuesday but that he is angry with the GOP for what he considers its profligate ways when it was last in power. Why does he think Republicans will do a better job if they take control of the House or Senate? "I think they're getting the message," he said. "I hope they're getting the message." He also hopes that Christine O'Donnell, the tea party Republican running far behind in her Senate race in Delaware, stages an upset next week. "I hope that sends a message to [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell that, you know what, we're tired."
Bonnie Murphy lives in Farmington Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. On a recent Saturday morning, she warmly greeted Republican congressional candidate Andrew "Rocky" Raczkowski, who was canvassing the neighborhood in his bid to unseat Rep. Gary Peters (D). After he moved down the street, she was asked what she thinks about the state of the country.
"You have three hours?" she responded. "This is what I feel. There's a lot of inequity. The rich are getting richer, and the middle class that has supported our country for so long has fallen apart. . . . We need something that is accessible and reachable that we can grab onto. And we were promised that two years ago, and I know it takes time for things, but things aren't getting better, they're getting worse. . . . I don't care what party line [politicians] stand on, just give us something to grasp onto."
That will be the challenge for the politicians after Tuesday. The long election year has generated powerful feelings and given voice to the frustrations and anxieties of voters on the left and the right and in the center. They see an economy that isn't working and a political system that is, if anything, even more broken. Many are gripped with fear; others are losing hope. They are polarized as perhaps never before.
That is the country that Obama, Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, and a potentially huge influx of newly elected lawmakers will try to govern. The stakes will be high on Tuesday. But for both parties, they will be even higher once the ballots are counted.