PHILADELPHIA -- In an era of virulently contrary characters, in an election of eerie contradictions, one contradiction involving contrary characters not only stands out but also defines our time and our November choice. This is it:
The 2016 campaign is a struggle for the hearts of voters who are at once desperate for change -- and satisfied with their well-being. It is an electorate that is impatient with America's leadership -- even as it is highly supportive of America's leader.
If all that prompted you to read those two sentences twice -- if in fact those two sentences make no sense whatsoever -- then you completely understand the nature of American politics today and the course of the general election campaign.
The numbers bear out these contrary statements. A YouGov/Huffington Post poll showed that a solid majority of Americans want to "take the country in a different direction." A comprehensive poll by Gallup and the health care giant Healthways shows that people believe their lives have improved since Barack Obama took office. Obama, meanwhile, wins healthy approval ratings.
In short, things are pretty good and we have a profound need to change things.
The two presidential nominees are listening, at least a little and at least to some of this. Across this important swing state and across the country, they have seized on the change element of the voters' message, with Donald J. Trump vowing to make America great again (even as he says this is a great country) and Hillary Clinton stretching to assure the public she is no Bill Clinton (supporter of NAFTA, a tough crime bill and welfare "reform") and really isn't all that much an Obama (free-trader and faint defender of America abroad).
Even so, how to portray Obama and his record is a vital question for campaign strategists of both parties.
Every presidential election is a decision point for Americans, a moment to declare whether the path the country is taking is worthwhile or whether to swerve from the path. Great changes in the nation's direction came in 1920, when Woodrow Wilson's engagement-oriented Democrats were repudiated by Sen. Warren G. Harding and the Republicans, who turned away from Europe and looked inward, and again a dozen years later, when Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated President Herbert Hoover and promoted a more interventionist role for Washington in the economy.
Other major changes came in 1952 with the election of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, eight years later with the ascension of Sen. John F. Kennedy, and again in 1980, when the country turned from President Jimmy Carter to give former Gov. Ronald Reagan and his vision of supply-side economics a try.
The debate about the state of the nation is the centerpiece of this campaign, but the debate seems to be miscast slightly. That Gallup survey plainly shows Americans believe their standard of living has increased since Obama entered the White House. When the president was inaugurated, 73 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with their standard of living. This year's figure: 80 percent.
More dramatic is Americans' assessments of their expectations. When Obama took office in 2009, 42 percent said their standard of living was getting better. Today that figure hugs the 60 percent figure. Moreover, more than 55 percent of Americans say they are "thriving" -- the highest figure Gallup has found in the nine years it has sought this information.
"Challenger candidates usually try to exploit discontent," said Larry Bartels, co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University. "There may be a lot of contentment, but there may be enough people who are discontented to make a bloc of voters. That would be a big bloc -- but not a majority."
And the discontentment may be of a different character altogether this time.
Writing in the conservative journal National Review, David French argued this month that the country in 1980 was "primed for resurgence: a good president had only to create the right conditions for success." This time, he continued, "Our culture is weak, and our politics are weak. Our nation is far less sound -- beset with cultural problems that lie far beyond the capacity of any politician to fix."
And it is ironic that, at a time when the problems seem beyond the range of traditional politicians, two untraditional politicians are competing for the White House. The Trump campaign may argue that Clinton has the outlook and persona of a traditional politician, but as the first female nominee of a major American party, she is by definition untraditional; as secretary of state, for example, she emphasized global issues involving the role and welfare of women to an extent that no chief diplomat had ever done. Trump, of course, is the least traditional nominee of modern times.
All of this is occurring as the profiles of the two parties are undergoing important, perhaps lasting, change.
College-educated middle-class voters, once a reliably Republican segment of the electorate, now lean toward the Democrats. The Republican nominee claims the support of the very blue-collar voters that have been securely and reliably Democratic for years, though Richard M. Nixon and Reagan made important inroads among them.
The tension within the GOP was evident in the bruising primary season.
In the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science this month, the political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Michael Tesler of the University of California, Irvine, argue there is a partisan divide on the question of the economy. "Even before the Republican primary got underway," the two professors wrote, "there was already significant economic discontent among Republicans."
The truth is that there is discontent everywhere, co-existing with a general sense of contentment. Has there ever been such a moment of cultural confusion?
Perhaps we should look to the 1920s, a decade that didn't roar for everyone, unless you concede that some of the roar was discontent, especially among working people.
Next month, S.L. Price releases "Playing Through the Whistle," an important study of the steel town of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and its storied high school football team. In the course of telling this remarkable story, Price argues that the "distilled image of the 1920s -- amoral flappers swanning about a sea of bathtub gin -- is but a dim caricature of a nation unnerved." The same could be said of our own confused time.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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