The presidential race appears to be very close, with a considerable share of the public finding it hard to get excited about either candidate.
For supporters, the question about Obama seems to be whether he has the courage of his convictions. The question about Romney is whether he has any convictions at all. Both candidates face an uphill battle when it comes to convincing the electorate that they can be trusted to live up to their campaign promises.
During the past 20 years, Americans, not for the first time, have moved beyond skepticism to disdain of politics and government. Surveys indicate that 69 percent of us believe that government can be trusted only some or none of the time. There are also findings that the percentage of people who believe that the government generally will try to do the right thing has declined from over 70 percent in 1964 to about less than 20 percent during the presidency of George W. Bush. And, those who still have a favorable opinion of Congress are outnumbered by the percentage of their fellow citizens who believe that disguised extra-terrestrials are living among us.
So while support for the "Tea Party" movement may be in the teens, negative feelings about government are widespread and not really all that new. One need look no further back than 2008 to confirm that large majorities of Americans are and have been deeply disappointed and sometimes angry about their government. Indeed they don't see it as "their" government at all. Rather they believe that it serves the special interests, the wealthy, and the professional political class rather than the public in general.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. The economy is in the worst shape in two generations. Most of the recovery activity has been characterized as bailouts for mismanaged companies -- and for the "mismanagers" themselves. The stimulus package which actually has helped to provide some momentum for a recovery has received little positive attention. And, a big chunk of the media and more or less the entire Republican Party is doing 24/7 sharp critiques of just about everything the government (or at least this current administration) does.
For those running for office, building trust in this environment is a tall order.
The recent health care debate also provided a perfect example of how half-truths and outright misrepresentations can gain traction in the overheated, intensely partisan world of modern media. Eventually, the Obama administration and the Democrats prevailed (at least for now), but only after a years of divisive, bitter, and polarizing political warfare. The health care battle became a classic confrontation between a complex package of measures addressing the enormous range of health care issues and a set of potent, headline grabbing attacks on the bill's real and imagined weak points.
The healthcare struggle demonstrated anew that we are way beyond the healthy skepticism that can be a good thing in the marketplace for both goods and ideas -- a reminder that we need to relocate the place along the scale from blind faith to paranoia that is the sweet spot enabling both democracy and capitalism to function with reasonable effectiveness. Trust, after all, is a prerequisite for popular elections and growing markets.
We need to pull together to overcome the most serious economic setback since the Great Depression. We face as a nation great uncertainty and risk about the outcomes of two on-going wars. Can we claw our way back to a constructive give and take? Which candidate can find a way to lead us there?
Our recent disappointments are not a reason to give up on the idea that we can do better. Government, after all, remains the way we make decisions as a society, as well as the necessary instrument for public investments in our future like bridges and airports, as well as research, training, and education. And, the present all too real sources of discontent do not necessarily preclude trust. One need only think of Franklin Roosevelt to realize that difficult periods can create immense opportunities.
To lead in this environment requires an extraordinary degree of "truth telling." Leaders must gamble that there can be a consensus to reward such behavior. It won't work at once; it probably will chew up many political and business leaders along the way; but it is the only real hope we have of facing and overcoming our stagnation and reviving civil society.
There is no substitute for a president who will lead this revival. He must lead because there is no safe political finesse -- no matter how cunning the spin -- that offers a way to duck these issues. He can demonstrate to politicians and the press alike that it pays to treat Americans like grown-ups, still capable of understanding and shaping their destiny.