At this point in 1931, Franklin Roosevelt did not have a New Deal. He was running against a Hoover presidency and a country that had gone haywire.
The New Deal developed after Roosevelt was elected and was based not on ideology, but on a simple principle that Roosevelt himself underscored. To paraphrase: "I'm not sure what we're going to do, but we have to try something."
At this same point in time in 1979, if Ronald Reagan thought that he was going to win the presidency, he was probably the only person in America who thought so. That victory was not assured until the weekend before the election, and again it was based less on ideology and more on the fact that the voters sensed things had gone haywire due to stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis.
But Reagan took his victory and turned it into a major redefinition of federalism, just as Roosevelt had done 48 years earlier.
So what's going on today? We have a president with a near record-low job performance rating -- 24 percent. (The record lows were Harry Truman after he fired Douglas MacArthur, and Richard Nixon the day before he resigned. Both were at 23 percent. )
But the Democrats who run Congress have an 11 percent job approval rating. Let's just note that in my polling in 1995, O.J. Simpson was at 16 percent.
Voters are angry and disillusioned. Their faith in governmental institutions is at a record low. Much of that has to do with failure in Iraq and our damaged image abroad, but even more it has to do with Katrina and a pervasive sense that government at all levels is disconnected from Americans' needs and from the capability of handling a major catastrophe.
When Americans identify the issues they consider most important, they talk about Iraq, but that may be less of an issue next year than the combination of the economy and health care. Health care is the number one economic issue in the country today and health insurance is what separates many Americans between middle-class status and near poverty. In the past, Americans have not voted with a sense of urgency about health care. In 2008, with one in three voters who presently have employer-based insurance afraid of losing some or all of it, they will vote for universal health coverage.
There are other issues. Immigration is very intense. So is science -- in the form of global warming and stem cell research. But overriding all of these issues will be the question of whether government can restore confidence. Can it get people to believe that it's up to the task of insuring safety and security and meeting human needs?
That is what 2008 will be all about. Whether the final two candidates ever express these sentiments, during the campaign or not, once victory is in hand, the next president is going to have to redefine federalism -- the proper role of the central government and its relationship to state and local governments, non-governmental organizations and faith-based institutions.
If the new president can do that, he or she will join the ranks of Roosevelt and Reagan. If not up to the task, his or her name may find itself near the bottom of the list of respected leaders. The stakes are very high.
Utica native John Zogby has been polling on issues ranging from presidential elections to current affairs to social issues since 1984. His firm, Zogby international, is based in Utica, NY.
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Originally published in the Observer-Dispatch newspaper in Utica, NY.
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