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Elections 2010: Politics at a Time of Uncertainty

By Elvin Lim

We have 99 Days to go before Election Day. How different things look today compared to Obama’s first 100 days. In the last year and a half, the national mood has turned from hope to uncertainty.  The sluggish job market is the economic representation of this psychological state. Business are not expanding or hiring because they do not know what the future holds for them.

The White House, in acknowledging that it expects unemployment to remain at or around 9 percent, has conceded that voters will have to deal with this state of uncertainty even as they will be invited this Fall to make up their minds about whether their members of Congress deserve another term or if it is time for another reset. A certain act given an uncertain future. That’s the crux of the political game this year.

Come November, voters will be asking: do we stay the course and give the incumbents a little more time to bring back the test results, or do we throw the bums out and issue a new test? Republicans are chanting behind one ear saying, “no results means bad results”  and Democrats are chanting in the other, saying, “wait for it, the good times are coming.” With no good news or an objective litmus test in sight, the election outcomes will turn largely on the perception of despair versus hope.

The emerging Republican narrative for Election 2010 is that all this uncertainty in the market was generated by big brother. A massive health-care bill which has made it difficult for business to predict their labor costs for the years to come; a financial deregulation bill has given new powers to government but no indication as to how such powers will be deployed; and now, talk of legislation that would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire in 2010 is only going to spook business out even more. The Republican headline is: despair; and it is time to move on.

Unless they can point to some specific pork they have brought back to their constituents, Democrats will have to deal with this national mood of uncertainty that can easily be turned into despair. The question of whether or not Democrats will lose one or both (because zero is nearly out of the question) houses of Congress will turn on how successfully, once again, they would be able to massage the reality of uncertainty away from the fairly contiguous sentiment of despair into the more unrelated sentiment of hope.

Now that was a lot easier done in 2008. When patience had run dry with Iraq and George Bush, even Independents found it easy to be optimistic about an alternative path. Anything but the status quo was cause for hope in 2008. Not so in 2010, where there is neither clear light at the end of the economic tunnel nor a wreck in sight. It would take a much bigger leap of faith this year for the same people who voted Obama into office to continue to hope that his friends in Congress will deliver on his promises. Indeed, at this point, Republicans and most Independents are probably done with hoping. They’ve heard the boy cry “wolf” too many times.

The only people who will see hope when there is only uncertainty are the Democratic party faithful. If Democrats want to avert an electoral catastrophe, their best bet is to turn out the party faithful who will vote for a member of their own party even if the heavens came crashing. In this year’s political wheel of fortune, it’s all about whether uncertainty can be massaged into despair or spun into hope.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

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