Deeply divided, angry and unsettled, the country faces a presidential election of unusual significance this year, as candidates sort through the causes and consequences of the Great Recession and fight over how best to stoke the nation’s fragile recovery.
Both sides agree the 2012 contest will turn on big issues, not the trivialities -- flag factory visits, candidate wardrobe critiques -- that characterized past campaigns.
But as voting starts Tuesday in Iowa, the consensus ends there.
A question the country has wrestled with intermittently for more than a century -- the proper size and scope of government, the freedom and latitude that business and the private sector need to thrive -- is being debated with renewed urgency after the worst economic slump since the 1930s.
President Obama, who came to office as the job-decimating recession was in full force, claims credit for preventing the downturn from being much worse and says his policies offer a step toward fairness after decades in which the rich prospered and most others fell behind.
Republicans say Obama hindered the recovery and continues to bog down the economy -- hurting those he purports to help -- by imposing Washington’s overreaching will on business and entrepreneurs. They cite the president’s expansive healthcare overhaul as the prime example.
Obama made his case, and outlined the broad theme of his reelection drive, in a speech last month in Kansas, where he took aim at the country’s rising inequality. He suggested the government has a role to play as arbiter, to ensure that those working hard “and fighting to get into the middle class” stand a fair chance.
Mitt Romney, who has been the shaky GOP front-runner for most of the last year, rebutted in a speech ahead of the caucuses here and next week’s New Hampshire primary.
The former Massachusetts governor said the federal government needs to get its boot off the back of the free-enterprise system, allowing businesses to flourish and Americans to reap the benefits of vigorous market competition. Equal opportunity is a reasonable goal of government, Romney suggested, not trying to mediate “equal outcomes.”
The two sides present their views at a time when the country is sharply at odds, which, as much as anything, has contributed to the gridlock in Washington and failure of either party to build a lasting majority.
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the proper role and scope of government that splits the public nearly in half,” said Michael Dimock, who has perused tens of thousands of voter interviews over the last year as associate director of the Pew Research Center.
“When you ask people if they want a bigger government doing more or a smaller government doing less, it’s almost exactly down the middle,” Dimock said. “Do you want the government spending more to stimulate the economy or cutting to reduce the deficit? Again, it’s almost 50-50.”
Four years after he swept into the White House on a wave of hope and good feeling, all the ingredients are there to make Obama the Democrats’ first single-term president since Jimmy Carter, save one: a strong, inspiring and broadly popular Republican opponent.
On the day of Iowa’s precinct caucuses, polls point to a three-way contest among Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and the late-charging former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. The GOP race has already proved the most volatile of the last 50 years, with favorites -- Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich -- rising, then just as quickly falling.
At the start of the new year, the most likely prospect no matter who wins the GOP nomination is a close, hard-fought and mean-spirited campaign. It may not be midnight in America, but the contest surely will not radiate the optimism of Ronald Reagan’s famously sunny 1984 reelection campaign, or even the early buoyancy of 2008.
The sourness -- a “negative energy of fear, anger and dismay,” in the words of veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart -- will probably suffuse races up and down the ballot.
All 435 members of the House will face reelection at a time when Congress registers some of the lowest approval marks ever recorded. Democrats must gain 25 seats, assuming they hold on to a district in an Oregon special election this month, to win back the chamber they lost in the 2010 GOP landslide. It seems unlikely but not impossible, given the volatility of recent years.
In the Senate, 33 seats will be up in November, with Democrats defending the vast majority. The GOP needs to gain four seats -- or three, if it wins the White House and a Republican vice president can break a 50-50 tie -- which appears quite possible, especially after Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson announced his retirement last week in that Republican-leaning state.
Much will depend on the momentum, if any, generated by the candidates at the top of the ticket.
To a great extent, the White House contest will be a referendum on Obama and, more specifically, his performance on the economy. “The president ran on hope and change,” said Charlie Cook, who handicaps elections in his nonpartisan guide to campaigns, the Cook Political Report. “I think people have to have some realistic hope that things are changing for the better.”
But the election will also present a choice. Until now, the president has been running, to a large extent, against himself or, even less flatteringly, the idealized Barack Obama of the last presidential campaign. The contest in November will present another contrast, between the Democrat in the White House and a Republican nominee with his or her own record, a distinct personality and a set of policies and proposals to be weighed against the alternative.
Obama has benefited greatly by running unopposed on the Democratic side, which allows him to start amassing an anticipated $1-billion campaign treasury and build campaign organizations in key states well ahead of the fall campaign. Not least, he has also avoided the philosophical fight that has sundered parties and cost several incumbents, most recently Carter and President George H.W. Bush, reelection.
“Once you’ve created disaffection among voters in your own party,” said Democrat Bill Carrick, who helped Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wage guerrilla warfare against Carter in 1980, “it’s hard as hell to get them back in November.”
Even so, with voters evincing so much anger and disgust toward the political class, the times seem especially ripe for some outsider to challenge the two-party stranglehold on the White House.
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson has already abandoned his effort to win the GOP nod and announced plans to run in the fall as an independent. Others may follow.
The group Americans Elect, using tens of millions in seed money, is working to secure a ballot spot for some yet undetermined presidential ticket, hoping to overcome what has traditionally been the greatest hindrance to a third-party alternative.
If there is one certainty in this most uncertain political season, it is this: “Expect a surprise,” said Don Sipple, a longtime GOP strategist. “Maybe several.”