In poll after poll, one thing is clear: public confidence in the institutions and pillars of a functioning democracy is at an all-time low. Whether public schools or religious institutions, Congress or the news media, you name it and the public is skeptical about it.
Combine that with growing mistrust of CEOs in general and financial institutions in particular, and you’ve got the ingredients for a pretty sour national mood.
This isn’t good for a number reasons, but key among them is the sputtering economic recovery. If we can’t improve the national mood, it’s going to be difficult to improve the national economy.
One of the reasons why the economies of both the Reagan and the Clinton eras were so robust is because the national mood was much sunnier. Confidence in virtually every institution was generally positive and our economics reflected that. It’s no coincidence that both Presidents were relentlessly upbeat and positive in their demeanors, and seemed to love their role as the national cheerleader, even in the face of scandal or during conflicts with the Congress. A grateful nation responded.
Nothing has changed in recent years. The key reason there was such enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s message when he was first running for President four years ago is the desire among Americans for a cheerleader-in-chief. His amazing oratorical skill and his message of hope and change seemed to fit the bill quite nicely.
Since his election, however, what has come to dominate the headlines – self-interest, greed, avarice, exploitation, bitter disputes – has been the polar opposite of what Americans were looking for. Most of these were not of the President’s making, but by ceding the national narrative to the forces of gloom and negativity, he abrogated his responsibility to cheer the nation.
We now face a race for President and control of Congress that features a wooden former governor at the head of one ticket and a professorial incumbent leading the other. Moreover, both are determined to run the dirtiest, meanest, most negative campaigns $2 billion can buy.
Both candidates have rich records of accomplishment that are ripe for spin and attack. As a result, a handful of unfortunate states face a barrage of negative TV and radio commercials featuring ominous music and images of the candidates as variously demonic or clownish or both. Online, partisans are encouraged to socialize the attack of the day via social media and networks in the hopes of swaying a voter here or there in one directions or the other.
One thing we won’t hear a lot about is substantive policy issues or concrete ideas for how we can get the economy moving.
Though I don’t agree with Mitt Romney’s stands on the national safety net, gay rights, immigration and a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices, he seems to be likeable guy. He has a beautiful family that clearly adores him and he has a record as governor, a businessman and leader of the Olympics to recommend him for office.
President Obama has accomplished much that I’m proud of, including healthcare reform, saving the American automobile industry, winding down the Iraq war and ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, among many, many other achievements. He’s clearly a lovely human being and, like Romney, has a beautiful family.
In other words, both men have appealing attributes and both men have records of accomplishment. And they differ substantially on matters of policy. But instead of focusing on those areas of difference, they’ll work on demonizing one another – a campaign that’s been boiled down to “he’s foreign” vs. “he’s heartless”. What a choice!
Whoever wins, they’ll be at the helm of a nation that is up to its eyeballs (as Andrew Sullivan puts it) in junk food, junk bonds, junk science and just about every other sort of junk you can imagine. And they will have waged a campaign that only reinforces the national sense that America’s best days are behind it.
It’s not too late. The campaigns and their allies in various Super PACs can recalibrate. The candidates themselves could decide to refocus the debate on themes like hope and change – even if the Sarah Palin’s of the world sneer at them. They could offer concrete prescriptions for addressing our long-term structural challenges and debate their differences on substantive matters of policy. In other words, they could elevate the conversation and make it clear they respect the intelligence of the American people. They could choose to lead.
America is at its best when its people are united behind solving big problems and making the improbable happen. And the American people love it when the person leading those efforts is the national cheerleader, better known as President of the United States. Quite simply, it puts them in a good mood.
Which is just what a sad and cynical and weary nation needs most right now.
Author DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite. You can also check out his blog, Daily Casserole.