As they do perhaps once in a generation – 1932, 1968 and 1980 – Americans this week will choose a new president and chart a new course in a time of economic turmoil, social upheaval and great anxiety.
Financial markets are a mess. Pensions and retirement accounts are dwindling. U.S. troops are at war in two countries. Immigrants are pouring across the borders, legally and illegally.
Fewer than one in 10 Americans think the country's on the right track. Consumer confidence is at a 41-year low. The president's approval ratings rival the worst on record, and the public's opinion of Congress is even lower.
Add to that an unrelenting barrage of negative ads, warning that if you vote for the other guy, you'll help terrorists, pay higher taxes or lose your job, your savings or your home.
Out of that maelstrom, Americans will choose one of two very different men to lead the country back to peace and prosperity.
John McCain, 72, is a war hero who personifies some of the country's grandest traditions of service and sacrifice, offering a tested hand but also the prospect of seat-of-the-pants management reflected in his sometimes erratic and impulsive campaign.
Barack Obama, 47, is the voice of a new generation whose mixed racial heritage reflects the changing nation, who promises cool confidence as an antidote to anxiety, but who also offers a thin resume that leaves voters uncertain how or what he'll do when he's tested.
Propelled by the high stakes, Americans are expected to surge to polling places in record numbers Tuesday, capping weeks of heavy early voting in more than 30 states. Many states expect turnout to top 80 percent; national turnout is likely to rival, if not surpass, the modern record of 61.9 percent that was set in 1968.
That sense of urgency driven by anxiety suggests parallels to three earlier moments when the country ached for a new course:
In 1932, when the nation was mired in the Great Depression. Americans elected Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in a landslide and gave him big Democratic majorities in Congress, forging the first great political realignment of the 20th century. The Democrats created the modern federal government, with a first-ever safety net of programs to help the poor and the middle class, as well as a host of new regulations for Wall Street.
In 1968, when the country was torn by the Vietnam War, reeling from riots and assassinations at home and anxious about social changes such as civil rights for African-Americans and new roles for women. Americans narrowly elected Republican Richard Nixon, who vowed law and order and “peace with honor” in Vietnam.
In 1980, when America was besieged by economic stagnation and inflation at home and seemingly rendered impotent by Iranian militants — and President Carter himself diagnosed a national malaise. The country elected Republican Ronald Reagan in a landslide and sent him to Washington to rebuild the economy and to restore American power abroad.
Every election is different, of course.
This year, the economy isn't as bad as 1932, when unemployment hit 23.6 percent and it seemed there was nowhere to turn for help.
“People were in despair, bewildered,” said historian James MacGregor Burns, an authority on presidential leadership. “Now, people are not so much bewildered as skeptical.”
Today, unlike 1932 and more like 1968 or 1980, Americans feel threatened from abroad. Many see their culture changing in ways that they find unsettling, if not alarming. They fear they're losing one of the institutions that helped build the American middle class, the U.S. auto industry.
While they now have a government safety net that was built up since 1932, they also see a government that failed to serve fellow Americans following Hurricane Katrina, and failed to regulate Wall Street or ward off the financial meltdown.
“This is the worst crisis of confidence in our institutions since 1932,” said pollster John Zogby. “The numbers are worse than Watergate, worse than the malaise period of the late 1970s.”
That crisis of confidence is driving an overwhelming sense that American life is changing, sometimes in ways that people don't understand and can't control.
That, in turn, is fueling a hunger for some new political order that can meet these challenges — whether it's a new regulatory framework for a global economy, a shift in tax policy, or an energy policy that stops giving foreign producers ever more power over the U.S. economy and a halt to government spending that gives China and other countries ever more leverage over the U.S. government.
“It's time for a change,” said Johnny Rodriguez, a construction worker from Indianapolis who's been out of work for more than a year as housing starts in the city's once booming suburbs have dried up. He's voting for Obama, hopeful that the Democrat's promise of tax cuts for the working and middle class will jump-start the economy.
Americans have been put through such a wringer this year that even when the news is good, it fails to ease the fear.
In Ohio, for example, the rapid drop in gasoline prices to as low as $2.40 a gallon hasn't erased the sting of summer's equally fast spike to $4. “We're not in control, that's the problem,” said Matt Dodds, a salesman from Lancaster, Ohio. He plans to vote for McCain, eager to see him boost American energy production.
If policies appeal to some voters, temperament may matter more, much as it did when voters were drawn to the sunny, confident optimism of FDR or Reagan's “Morning in America.”
“It's a politics of reassurance,” said Randall Miller, a historian at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. “One reason Obama is doing well in this sense of crisis is that he has appeared to be the cooler guy. He seems to be measured, unflappable. … Part of McCain's problem, people argue, is that even as he's issuing reassurances, he's been kind of a pinball. His conduct makes people more anxious, not less.”
“Americans are looking for a consensus builder and a problem solver,” said pollster Zogby. “The top things they're looking for are a problem solver, a competent manager, a commander in chief and strong personal values. None of them are ideological.”
The bottom line is to fix things: the government. The economy. The country.
Whoever is elected will have a mandate to get things going — what Obama recently called a “righteous wind.”
“This is an or-else election,” Zogby said, explaining that the next president has a historic opportunity to use the national sense of crisis to enact major changes — or risk losing support for years to come.
“We're headed toward a rare period of real reform. We've only had a total of seven years of major reform in the last 100 years: 1913-1914 under Woodrow Wilson, 1933-1936 under Franklin Roosevelt and 1964-1965 under Lyndon Johnson.
“There will be another period of reform regardless of who's elected — if only because there has to be and there will be a national consensus for it.”