Americans are pessimistic and angry, and their social and economic discontent threaten to make the 2012 election a strange one.
A race to the White House, slowed by a deepening funk
Having spent time this week in both New Hampshire and Iowa, the states featuring the first presidential nominating contests of 2012, and having been in Michigan the week before, I am getting the feeling that this has all the makings of a very strange election. Foremost among the reasons for this is the fact that the country is in a deep funk. The numbers tell it all.
The economy has not recovered from its near collapse three years ago. Unemployment levels are still double what they were a little over a decade ago. Pension funds are still reeling, having lost 20 to 30 per cent of their value. Nearly one in five homeowners is at risk of foreclosure. Most middle class Americans are working harder, earning less, and feeling more insecure about their futures.
And the income and wealth gap has widened, with the top one-tenth of a per cent of Americans controlling more wealth than the bottom ninety per cent. As Bob Borosage, head of the Campaign for America's Future, has noted, this income gap in the US today is greater than it was in Egypt at the start of their revolt earlier this year.
All of this has taken a profound toll on the public mood. Eight out of ten voters think that the country is on the wrong track. President Barack Obama's job approval rating is in the low 40 per cent range. Congress' approval rating is one-quarter of that, with only 11 per cent of the public approving of the job Congress is doing.
Voters might not be happy with the president and his party, but they are less pleased with Republicans. And when asked whether they believe that their children will be better off than they are today, almost two-thirds of Americans say "no" - a stunning figure that points to the collapse of the American dream that has motivated and sustained the hard-working middle class for generations.
It is this funk, or generalised state of unease and depression, that has given birth to the various social movements that have so polarised parts of the electorate.
First there was the Tea Party, led by Republicans who were able, for a time, to take this insecurity and anger and direct it against government in general, and the president in particular, in order to advance their party's agenda.
This has now been met on the progressive side of the political spectrum with the growing Occupy Wall Street movement. This effort, which began a few weeks back in New York City, has now spread to dozens of cities across the country. It has now been joined by organised labour, giving it heft and sustainability.
Republicans want nothing more than to defeat President Obama and retake control of government. In fact, from the earliest days of the Obama administration they made clear their intent to block his every move and ultimately defeat him in 2012. As a result, Washington has become even more polarised than the deeply divided electorate, with the Republican-led Congress refusing to compromise with Democrats and the White House.
It is in the midst of all this funk and polarisation that we are going to have a national election, and Republicans are finding themselves victims of the very movement they counted on to bring them success. Having preyed on the insecurity of white middle class middle aged Americans and having fuelled their anger, Republicans now find themselves being chewed up by their own creation.
Moderate to conservative Republicans who might have aspired to run for the presidency have been frightened off by the same movement. Respected governors have declined to run, and those who are in the race have bowed to the extreme anti-government, intolerant social conservative, anti-science and Islamophobic politics of what has now become the base vote of the GOP.
For months, mainstream "establishment" Republicans waited for a "saviour" to announce his or her candidacy, hoping that they would galvanise the party, leading it to victory. One by one, these "saviours" have refused. And so it has now dawned on Republicans that they will have to settle for the candidates presently in the mix. Some Republicans may like this state of affairs, but polls are showing that almost one-half of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters are dissatisfied.
And so with the first contests less than three months away, the flawed Republican field is in some disarray, with many Republican voters in a funk over the field and their prospects in this election they so desperately wanted to win.
Because Mr Obama faced such stiff opposition from Republicans and knew that he could not count on the total support of all Democrats, he has over the past three years been compelled to compromise. But the White House has now taken a different tack, proposing a jobs bill and other reform measures that represent what they want and they are taking this agenda in a fighting spirit to the electorate. Whether it will be enough to shake Democrats out of their gloom remains to be seen.
The contest, at this point, appears to be focused on intra-party dynamics, with Republicans trying to fall in love with a candidate they will have to settle for, and Democrats trying to fall in love again with the president.
This will all happen in due time. But for now, in Michigan, New Hampshire and Iowa, some voters are angry but many more remain in a dark mood and it is this that defines the electorate.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute