There is an anxious and weary feeling this November as Americans make their way to the polls and cast their votes for president.
The excitement of four years ago, when voters swept a charismatic and eloquent young black man into office, is gone – scoured away by years of grinding unemployment, painful recovery, relentless partisan attacks, and a sense of disappointment even among his most hopeful supporters.
“Everyone is disappointed everyone wishes we were in a better place than we are now,” American historian John Barry says.
“I think the disruption of the 2008 economic near collapse – that is deep and lasting and more so than most people I think realise.”
Bill Fletcher, an author and labour organiser, says: “We’re anxious. We’re anxious about what the results of this election are going to be.
Most people realise this is not as easy as tweedle-dum, tweedle-dee situation – that there are more things at stake in this election.”
Whats at stake for Americans is the nature of the country’s social contract.
Barack Obama represents the view that government has a role in supporting the poor, unemployed, sick and elderly, regulating Wall Street, and reining in the excesses of capitalism.
“We have been historically a communitarian society as opposed to a libertarian society,” Barry says.
“That idea is under assault by a libertarian view. The idea that essentially not only are you entirely responsible for your life but you are on your own.”
Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan believe in the ideology of the marketplace and individual responsibility, a nation whose government should shrink, social support programmes should be scaled back or privatised, and taxes on wealth should be reduced.
Fletcher calls that “a radical deconstruction in every gain that the majority of people have received or won since the first decade of the twentieth century”.
Advocates of smaller government say cutting spending on social programmes is essential to avoid a future fiscal calamity, and reducing the budget deficit and easing regulations will return the US to healthy economic growth.
Julia Shaw, a constitutional scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says: “Limited government is how our economy thrives. We see with hampering regulations, high taxes, out of control spend that that really kills economic growth, it kills the entrepreneurial spirit. it creates a lot of uncertainty that is really bad for a growing, bustling economy.”
The divisions run deep. Poll after poll shows Obama and Romney in a virtual tie.
Negative and nasty
Everyone agrees the campaigns have been overwhelmingly negative and nasty, and the level of bitterness is high.
“I would say right now we’re more partisan than we have been since at least world war two and maybe a little bit before that,” Barry says.
“I think we’re more vicious. I keep thinking we will hit bottom, and we get lower and lower. I think in terms of out-right lies and campaigns, this campaign is setting records.”
But even beyond the ugliness of the negative campaign, something deeper seems to have shifted, cracking the surface of traditional American optimism.
Polls show two-thirds of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going, and a majority feel the country is heading down the wrong track.
Most shockingly, fewer than a quarter of Americans believe today’s children will have a better future than their parents.
That’s a direct repudiation of the American Dream, that each succeeding generation will be more successful, better educated, and enjoy a higher standard of living that its predecessor.
One reason for the gloom: economic inequality in the US is at a historically high level, and that concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands means political inequality is increasing, too.
A tiny percentage of the wealthiest Americans use the power of their money to advance political agendas.
The two candidates themselves, as well as independent political action groups called Super Pacs, have raised billions of dollars.
Those numbers would have boggled the minds of the Founding Fathers.
“There’s no doubt the framers would look at this system and say this system is corrupt,” economist Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University says.
“That’s precisely the word they would use – corrupt.
“It certainly makes candidates more sensitive to the needs of the very rich who are funding their campaigns than they otherwise would be if all they were concerned with was the getting the votes of all of us.”
Worse, he says, “it leads most of us to think that they can’t help but be beholden to the interest of the very very rich who are funding their campaigns”.
While many people around the globe see the US as a fading superpower, there are good reasons for the rest of the world to pay attention to this election.
“The simplest way of answering that question is just reminding people of George W Bush and Al Gore,” says Moises Naim, foreign policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“If Al Gore had won it is very likely that the invasion of Iraq would not have happened, and the invasion and war in Iraq and everything else that ensued, the trillion dollars in expenditures and everything else that happened essentially hinged on the results of a few votes in Florida – a few votes that changed the world.”