11/14/2012 04:02 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

The Road Ahead

When candidates recognize that they are about to lose an election, they and their key staff members tend to become radicalized. During the end game, often abandoned by fair weather friends and "the smart money," they fall back on the true believers who sometimes turn out in huge numbers at rallies that seem to give the lie to polls showing almost certain losses ahead.

For the winners, particularly for winners who have successfully contended for the political center, the end-game experience is quite different. They are seeking to teach a broad swath of the voting public to trust them -- to trust them to be sensitive to their views and not simply those of their political base. Weeks of reassuring a wide and diverse electorate not only blunts the sharp edges of rhetoric, it also schools the candidate in the lessons of how to secure the approval of popular majorities and, later, the Congressional support so important to success in office. In those cases, the campaign may wind up having a moderating effect on the candidate's notion of how to govern.

The result is often a shock to the victor's most ardent supporters, who dreamed of an outcome that would sharply reverse past trends, break new ground, and finally put over the top cherished dreams of policy. This was clearly true in 2008, after eight years of George W. Bush, the Iraq war, the secret prisons, the illegal wiretaps, the economic meltdown, the inept response to Hurricane Katrina and the bruising language of the Republican campaign itself, which combined to intensify the feelings of people across the political spectrum.

Progressives found new allies, including "conscientious objectors" from the GOP side, while conservative hard-liners came to believe that terrible necessities justified the policies that had divided the nation. In the midst of these struggles about core beliefs, calm, and sure of himself, Barack Obama presented an option that for a majority seemed to rise above the noise and partisan strife. Now, in 2012, the question is can he sustain the trust he earned for many different reasons. He has already demonstrated that even the stunning results of the 2010 Congressional elections did not preclude a revival of presidential leadership.

During the past 20 years, Americans, not for the first time, have moved beyond skepticism to disdain of politics and government. One recent survey indicates that 80 percent of Americans believe that government favors the rich and powerful, up from 29 percent in 1964; 65 percent believe that "quite a few" government officials are corrupt, up from 45 percent in the wake of Watergate. Time magazine finds that the percentage of people who believe that the government generally will try to do the right thing has declined from over 60 percent in 1964 to about 10 percent today. Sustaining trust in this environment is a tall order.

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 the broad hostility toward the Bush administration 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.

Recent history has provided us with good reasons to doubt government: Watergate, Abscam, Iran-contra, the "house-bank," Monica, Enron, Abu Ghraib, WMD in Iraq -- all have eroded belief in the notion that our leaders will behave honorably and tell us the truth.

But during the past 40 years, Americans have more than once moved beyond disdain for politics and government to a willingness to support new leaders and fresh solutions to our problems.

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 -- physical ones like bridges and airports, as well as research, training, and education.

Today's conventional wisdom is that Washington is run by the venal and, worse that our system of self-government is incapable of rising above such selfishness. Yet there surely remains the potential for a popular surge in favor of new public actions and a yearning for restoration of the compact between government and the governed. It is, for the present, a vague and inchoate mixture of electronic democracy, new age openness, and even misdirected longing for a mythical past. But it is undeniably powerful, and it suggests new opportunity.

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.