The numbers of Americans who feel that we as a nation are headed in the wrong direction, or that we're in a very serious crisis, are worse than during Watergate. At the same time, our president has achieved a record low job approval (tied with Harry Truman and Richard Nixon) and Congress's approval hovers between 9 and 12 percent. Americans tell us they want a problem-solver, someone who can build consensus, is a competent manager, and has strong personal values.
As a result, this election will usher in one of the few years of genuine reform. If we look at American history over the last hundred years, dramatic reform took place in only seven of those years. In 1913-1914, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom created the beginnings of progressive change--an attempt, in part, to undermine the reform-minded Bull Moose candidate, former president Theodore Roosevelt. In 1933-1936, Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a comprehensive New Deal because he correctly sensed that the United States was at a point of political rebellion. In 1964-1965, Lyndon Johnson responded to race riots by launching his Great Society programs to fight poverty and racism.
So what's at stake now? Let's look at some numbers. In 1992, 92 million voters showed up at the polls to make their choice for president. By 2004, the number of voters reached nearly 123 million. In this election, we're projecting 132 million to 135 million voters--many of them, of course, first-time voting young people and minorities. These are voters with very high expectations. They demand action on the environment, health care, pension reform, energy independence and, of course, the economy.
Our next president won't want his name attached to inaction or failure that would dampen those high expectations.
What direction will his changes go in? It is truly hard to say. There's really very little consensus on the specifics, though actions like government spending for alternative energy and the creation of green-collar jobs have strong support across the board. But this is not a time to worry about specifics. Franklin Roosevelt did not campaign on a New Deal agenda; the New Deal actually was a patchwork of trial-and-error efforts after Roosevelt assumed office. In the final analysis, the new president will have to read the election results, build a consensus--both on Capitol Hill and among the general public--and forge ahead.
There is a risk: the American system of government itself, and how it operates today. It has been nearly half a century since Johnson's reforms, and many of his "fixes" sprung from the need for basic human fairness--that is, they were easy for Americans to support. In a way, it was a case of government leaders finally catching up with their followers, the public at large.
And those reforms came when there really was a consensus for the most part in Washington. Johnson had just come off one of the most dramatic presidential election landslides in modern times. After a career as a leader in Congress where he exercised the levers of power like few others, he knew that his administration and Congress would either succeed together, or fail together.
They succeeded--until the Vietnam War triggered another wave of disillusionment. But the point is, they had a window of time for sweeping reform, and they took advantage of it.
The politics of Washington and the problems facing our country are very different today. They're more complicated, more nuanced, with more vested political interests behind every position on every issue. Enemies are made with every decision, and the Internet permanently logs every offense. Disagreements are no longer washed away with an after-hours off-the-record drink at a Washington watering hole.
Which sounds pessimistic, but it simply means this: Our next president must find a new way to succeed in Washington, to make the politics of Washington work so that the government can again be a catalyst for good, not an obstacle in the way. Washington has become known as an us-versus-them bubble, but it can no longer afford such a mentality.
This is the change Americans tells me they want. Here's hoping they get it, for the sake of us all.
This column appears in the November 2008 edition of Politics Magazine.