Anxiety Has Driven This Year's Campaign
When Franklin D. Roosevelt won his second presidential term in 1936, the victory was driven by hope. Americans in deep economic depression needed to be told that their lives would improve, and FDR's words of his earlier election - "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" - still echoed in their ears.
At a moment when the polls are telling us that President Clinton will be reelected, I am drawn to memories of the Roosevelt presidency simply because he was the last Democrat to win a second term in the White House. And while Mr. Roosevelt's campaign was driven by hope, it seems to me that Mr. Clinton's is driven by anxiety.
Yes, Clinton has talked much about his "bridge to the future." And almost on a daily basis he has been promising this or that to this or that particular group of voters. In addition, the president's big smiles while on the stump stand in contrast to Bob Dole's tendency to scowl.
But there's also a lot of anxiety out there. And Clinton has been, in effect, encouraging those unsettling feelings among the electorate by underscoring the reality of their predicament.
Oldsters are afraid they will have their Social Security curbed if they vote for Dole. Clinton says that's true - but that he will protect them. So they are voting for Clinton, many Republicans among them.
Women are afraid their lives will be worsened under a Dole presidency. Some women are fearful of losing the right to choose abortion; many others just feel that their rise upward will be slowed by Dole as president. Clinton encourages these anxieties as he reaches for votes.
African-Americans are worried that there will be fewer opportunities for them and that their progress will be brought to a halt under Dole. Again, Clinton tells blacks that they should fear Dole and that he, the president, is their real friend.
Is this validating of voter anxieties unusual in a presidential campaign? No. And is Clinton the only one playing to the fears of voters? No. It's really the dominant flavor of this current presidential contest. Dole is trying mightily to convince the voters that the economy is bad and that the sky is falling on them. And Ross Perot is once again telling the voters that they are in a terrible fix - and that he's the only one who can fix it. Easily.
BUT today I am focusing on the candidate that just about everyone expects to win - Clinton. If the polls have let us down, so be it. But this column is being written on the assumption that this president will be the first Democrat in 60 years to convince the American voters that he should stay in office for another four years.
Historians are rating FDR as one of our great presidents, right up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. Those who supported FDR and continued to back him for four successive terms were adoring fans. They loved the president. My reading is that if the voters reelect Clinton, it will not be so much their affection for him as a feeling they have that they will be safer in his hands than in Dole's.
The question that will be asked if a second Clinton term occurs is this: Can he become one of our outstanding presidents? For Clinton the question will narrow to this: Can he provide the leadership that leads to greatness with an electorate that has voted him in with, for the most part, something less than enthusiasm and affection?
Great things are not being expected of Clinton if he gets a second term. Reporters who have been talking to voters all around the country tell us that Clinton supporters are putting their expectations in modest terms. Indeed, several of those people who will be sticking with Clinton have almost apologetically explained their position to me in this way:
"I think he may have learned a lot in his first term that will make him a better president in his next four years."
Roosevelt was reelected by adoring fans. Voters may reelect Clinton not because they feel affection for him but because they feel safer in his hands than in Dole's.