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From Hope to Doubt in a Single Election Cycle

Four years ago we had just one “Rorschach candidate” for president, with millions voting for Barack Obama, seeing in him their kind of leader.

This year, we’ve got two. Obama or Mitt Romney — it’s a vote shot into the dark.

On the stump, Obama says, “You know me. You know what I’ll do.” It’s true — there’s a record. But we actually have no idea whether he’s learned anything from four years of hyper-polarizing governance.

Despite issuance of a 20-page glossy economic agenda, we also have no clear idea exactly how Obama would increase the nation’s rate of growth from its tepid 2 percent.

And Romney, of course, is Mr. Etch-a-Sketch, who’s tried to redraw his profile from the “severe conservative” of the GOP primaries to the Massachusetts moderate of his governorship.

Of the two, Romney is the only candidate even talking about bipartisanship, which used to be Obama’s stock in trade.

Obama famously came to national attention with his galvanizing 2004 Democratic convention speech promising to join red America and blue America into the United States of America.

And he ran for president in 2008 allowing voters to think he was “post-partisan,” despite having the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate.

As president, there has been very little post-partisan about his behavior or his program. Democrats had a 79-seat margin in the House and a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate for two years, and Obama governed with little regard for Republican opinion.

Republicans, to be sure, resisted him at nearly every turn. But the times when they didn’t — as in supporting his “Race to the Top” education program — suggest that deals could have been made.

Instead, Obama didn’t hold a one-on-one meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for 18 months, and on more than one occasion he dismissively reminded GOP leaders that “we won the election.”

Liberals in Congress wrote his economic stimulus package. His government-heavy health care reform was pushed through under reconciliation rules. Neither attracted a single GOP vote, even from the few moderates left in Congress.

His agenda also included elimination of secret ballots in union elections and a cap-and-trade energy program that didn’t get enacted because of Democratic opposition. Obama promised to halve federal deficits in four years, but doubled the debt instead.

Voters rebelled in the 2010 elections, putting Republicans in control of the House. Obama might have done a “Clinton,” moving to the center, but didn’t. He made one nod — appointing the Simpson-Bowles debt commission — but then ignored its proposals.

In an interview last week with the Des Moines Register, Obama said he would reach a “grand bargain” with Republicans on debt if re-elected. But his aides have made it clear he regards hiking taxes on high earners as a non-negotiable priority, raising the possibility that he’d risk allowing the nation to plunge over the impending “fiscal cliff” and into recession.

According to the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, 62 percent of voters want to see “major change” in Obama’s policies if he’s re-elected; only 4 percent want to see a second term like his first. But he’s determined to go “Forward,” with no changes of any kind announced.

The president who promised to unify the country now stands as the most-polarizing president ever as Election Day approaches, with 90 percent support from Democrats and 8 percent from Republicans, an 82-point gap.

President George W. Bush, who also promised to be a uniter, held the previous record, with an 80-point gap in 2004. During Bush’s last years in office, he averaged a 76-point partisan approval gap, according to Gallup polls. Obama’s average this year is 75.

In 2008, independent voters supported Obama 52 percent to 44 percent. This year, they support Romney, 48 percent to 38 percent with 11 percent still undecided.

Hope springs eternal. Now it’s Romney who’s playing the role of the cross-party-lines problem-solver. But, given his record, there’s every reason to fear it’s just an act.

Romney now says he would expand Pell Grants to enable young people to go to college, but he previously endorsed the budget put forward by his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), calling for education aid cuts.

During the primaries, he denounced granting legal status to young illegal immigrants as “amnesty” and a “magnet” for illegal immigration. Now he’s for allowing the Obama administration policy of non-deportation to continue, at least for a while.

He’s softened his proposal for handling 12 million adult illegals, from driving them to “self-deportation” to “a matter of choice,” which may not be any different in practice.

During the primaries, he joined his fellow candidates in refusing to accept a deficit plan that called for even $1 in revenue increases for each $10 in spending cuts. Now, he’s saying that his proposed tax reforms will increase government revenues.

On foreign policy, Romney sounded in the primaries like a Dick Cheney-style super hawk ready to drop bombs on Iran. Now, except on defense spending, he’s minimizing differences with Obama and even praising the United Nations.

Who can tell whether he’d make Cheney ally John Bolton, Bush’s former U.N. ambassador, his secretary of state, or Robert Zoellick, the “realist” just-retired president of the World Bank?

And if moderate Mitt were elected, would he resist right-wingers in his party’s Congressional delegation to make deals with Democrats, or do as Obama did, letting party partisans run the show?

This campaign has been so nasty — with supposed nicer-guy Obama now leading the way in nastiness— that it’s hard to see how either candidate could end up uniting the nation.

Americans looked at the Rorschach four years ago and saw “Hope.” This year, with two ink blots, all I can see is doubt.

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