Anger and fear in the polling booth

America voted Tuesday amid much anger and fear. The anger is felt toward a federal government perceived by many to be ignoring the public will. The fear is of an uncertain future in the hands of politicians who seem to many voters unable to cope with the new economic distress.

Much of the anger has been deep but unfocused. As expressed by some in the tea party movement and by other conservatives, the country under President Barack Obama is moving down the road to "socialism." Whether through the new health care act, the new regulations of the banking and investment world, or the auto company bailouts, he is seen by the most extreme of them to be like some kind of foreign agent.

The anger was deftly driven by the concerted efforts and energies of the Republican leadership in Congress. They fashioned lockstep obstruction against Mr. Obama into a political strategy to regain control or at least strengthen their own hand for the next two years of his term. But the anger is not only against the Democrats. Polls have indicated that voters hold the Republicans in Congress in at least as low esteem — or lower.

The fear is also deep but more focused, essentially because of the stubborn national unemployment rate of more than 9 percent. It has not only left millions jobless; millions more are no longer even seeking work or are mired in subsistence wage jobs of uncertain reliability and duration.

The Republican leadership has done an effective job undermining Mr. Obama's $814 billion stimulus initiative by declaring it a total failure, despite the judgment of veteran economists that it saved many jobs in both the public and private sectors. The Obama administration has contributed by ineffectively demonstrating the achievements, while lamely (if reasonably) pleading for more time for the economic pump priming to work.

Mr. Obama unwisely tried to use Jon Stewart's popular "Daily Show" on cable to reach out to young voters last week only to be sandbagged by the host, who chided him on promised but undelivered "change." Mr. Obama hesitatingly called for more patience, and Mr. Stewart dug the needle deeper.

The Stewart- Stephen Colbert Comedy Central extravaganza on the Washington Mall was no more than an attempt to open a safety valve on the anger and to air a plea for "sanity" in this fall's toxic political dialogue. The crowd seemed to get a good laugh and recognized the spoof of conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck's earlier mass rally of patriotic and religious fervor. But it's doubtful either event added much positive to the public discourse.

Notably in the final days before the voting, Mr. Obama took to television from the White House to confirm that two plots to ship explosive devices to the United States via commercial cargo planes had been foiled. The news stirred no appreciable outbreak of dread in this country and no partisan allegations that the disclosure was a mere election-eve political stunt. There's already enough fear at home over the economic future to go around.

Midterm congressional elections driven by anger and fear are nothing new for America, and they are usually partisan in nature. What is striking about this cycle is that one major cause of anger during the eight years of the previous administration was almost entirely absent this time: the fact that America remains at war.

This was so despite continuing polls indicating the American people now believe not only that the war in Iraq was a mistake but also that pressing on with the one in Afghanistan after nine years is misguided. The drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq seems to have lowered the public temperature in that regard. Concern over the Afghan troop surge seems limited to the Democratic liberals disappointed with Mr. Obama for failing to deliver on his 2008 campaign promise to end both wars.

Mr. Obama in that campaign called on Americans to vote their hopes, not their fears, and the exhortation put him in the Oval Office. Two years later, their anger and their fears will compound his burdens over the next two.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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