When he had been written off early in the primary season, John McCain liked to cite a quotation often attributed to Mao: "It is always darkest before it is totally dark." For the country, the words seem more apt than ever this autumn. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 86 percent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going, a figure that matches the mood of the nation captured in a Gallup poll in June 1992, at a time of recession and unhappiness with incumbents. The current President Bush, meanwhile, now has a 25 percent approval rating, which is an all-time low in our poll. Only Richard Nixon (23 percent in 1974, the year he resigned) and Harry Truman (22 percent) have ever had lower numbers (in other polls). Total darkness indeed.
We think it would be a mistake, though, to declare this the End of Days, or the Near-Great Depression. Yes, things are very tough (I, for one, am hoping not to have to open any stock-market statements until, say, Easter). But they have been very tough before, and the country has always managed to learn from its misfortunes and get on with its business. And so, in the midst of the pervasive gloom, Fareed Zakaria makes the case that such painful moments are necessary to remind us to do the things we ought to do, and not to do the things we ought not to do.
Meltdowns like the one we are experiencing are difficult beyond words for some; there is nothing scarier than insecurity. No one who has children or who has ever been responsible for the welfare of another person can describe anything more terrifying than the feeling of helplessness when external forces threaten harm. That is one reason why politicians who can project a sense of confidence often do well in grim climates. McCain is a happy warrior, but the NEWSWEEK Poll suggests that voters are giving Barack Obama more credit on the economy than they are willing to grant a Republican. Forty-eight percent say the economy and jobs are the most important issues in the election (up from 39 percent in early September), and voters give Obama the edge on the question by a 54 to 35 percent margin.
Horse-race politics aside, the depth of discontent in the country is striking, and worrying. The good news is that we have never been a people who have been particularly comfortable feeling sour. Dark hours in our recent past—stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 1970s, recession in the early 1990s—were followed by periods of growth and optimism. In the first instance there was the election of Ronald Reagan; in the second there was the technological revolution of the 1990s. It is hard to say what will help lead us out of the troubles of the moment. Perhaps a President McCain or a President Obama will prove worthy of the tasks that await whoever wins in November, or perhaps some unforeseen development (or now unknown sector of the economy) will alter the unhappy calculus we are facing.
On the campaign trail, the fight is fierce. (This is usually a cliché—the "fierce fight" construction—but in this instance, like many clichés, it happens to be true.) Sharon Begley writes about the psychology of attack politics; Holly Bailey, Richard Wolffe and Michael Isikoff profile the operatives who are in charge in the last days.
One thing is clear from the financial chaos of recent weeks: we have to find lessons in the current debacle that will give us a chance to avoid stumbling anew. As Fareed argues in a package that includes essays from Daniel Gross, Zachary Karabell and Robert Shiller, the enforced discipline from the crash will be good for the country in the long run. If you are struggling, talk of "lessons" and "the long run" can sound hopelessly irrelevant. But it is fundamentally American to look for the bright side—and then to work as hard as we can to reach it. Watch out, darkness.