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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in Denver on Oct. 26, 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in Denver on Oct. 26, 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Barack Obama confronts a paucity of hope Add to ...

If elected folks in Washington are thinking public opinion can’t get much worse, they might be right. Still, they won’t want to linger over the poll reported by the New York Times last week. The depth of frustration with politicians is hitting a new low. The implications for incumbents on either side of the aisle are serious.

That nine out of 10 people think government can’t be trusted to make choices that are in the public interest is a shockingly high number. It means that even lawyers, Wall Street bankers, used car salesmen, and pollsters would all lose trust immediately upon joining the ranks of the elected. Honestly, I can't think of a group that would gain esteem by winning office, given these numbers.

Fully 74 per cent of Americans think their country is on the wrong track. Health care feels like a worse mess than ever, joblessness and the fear of joblessness is a huge brake on the economy. Governments are staggering under huge debt loads. On any given day, events in Greece or China seem to have more influence on U.S. stock indices than do the profits of America's largest corporations.

The United States is going through one of the darkest moods ever measured. The Times poll prompted me to review the famous “malaise” moment of president Jimmy Carter in 1979. The Democrat was dropped by voters after one term, crushed by perennial sunshine campaigner Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Carter was widely criticized for a televised speech in which he said that America was suffering from a “crisis of confidence.” Said the president then:

“I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might. … In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.”

Inflation and interest rates were both over 10 per cent, but the focus of the president’s speech was not economic conditions, it was energy security. “I'm asking you for your good and for your nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel.”

Mr. Carter's critics held that the role of commander in chief is to rally people to a better place, not acknowledge their gloom, or blame them for the nation's ills. If there was a hall of fame of political miscues, this speech would be in it.

Today, there is not much room for President Barack Obama to keep on the sunny side. He's trying to walk a fine line, careful to avoid the Carter abyss. His recent speeches and talk-show comments show a man who is resolute, but restrained. He’s careful to spare people a recitation of the things he wants credit for, instead, asserting that he’s got a lot more work to do. If he thinks that one of America's problems is a too robust sense of entitlement, he never says so.

To win re-election, Mr. Obama needs more than a well crafted stump theme. He needs better economic vitals, or the Republicans to choose badly in their nomination contest. More likely he needs all three.

For now, though, the American public is not focused on who should win the next election. And this is where a more serious problem lies. Voters are worried that nobody really knows what to do to revive the U.S. economy and create jobs. Not the President. Not the Republicans.

Whether taxes should go up, or down, whether more spending would help or hurt… Voters hear arguments on both sides, and their takeaway isn't that one side is right and the other wrong – it’s that this is nothing more than guesswork made up to look like something you could really count on.

Critics of Occupy Wall Street often comment that the protest lacks definition: no consensus as to what the problem is and no clear sense of a solution. But in this respect anyway, the protesters are not entirely outliers. The truth is they reflect a broad and troubling fear among Americans that the future looks bleak, less predictable, and more resistant to policy cures.

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