Whoever wins has a lot of work to do

Every election I’m old enough to remember has been billed as a crossroads, a turning point (more recently a tipping point), a referendum or … well, whatever term was in vogue for a decision that will set the direction of our nation forever, or at least until the next election. After awhile even the most patriotic citizen grows cynical: Man, I’ve voted every time and just look.

Nov. 4 will be (counting on fingers here) my 11th presidential election. I’ve never missed one, but except for a handful involving Bushes, my feelings haven’t been strong. Half a dozen of one, five or seven of the other; politicians mostly dance to the same piper.

This one, though, could really make a difference.

Or maybe not. I had hopes for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, too. Barack Obama could turn out to be as ineffective as the one or as priapic as the other. Or, since he’s a Democrat, scumsucking opponents could bring him low before he gets rolling.

I think not, though. Change is rare in Washington and in the minds of voters, but this year the two seem to be aligned to a degree that will be hard for any administration to ignore.

There are obstacles, of course. The first is the election. John McCain’s campaign has daily grown more loathsome—as a friend of mine said, “I used to think he was beneath contempt, but he’s dead level with it.” It took people a long time to see through his act, but they seem to be awake now.

Normally the Congress might be an obstacle, too, but this time not so much. Even absent a Demo supermajority, the war, the economy and public disgust and distrust should nudge a few Republicans away from the party line on crucial votes. And of course if Obama wins, that problem vanishes.

The big hurdle, though, will be us, the voters. The people who, it is to be hoped, put Obama in office. The same ones who, on the Monday morning after the Friday on which the Wall Street bailout was passed, were already sneering that it hadn’t worked.

It’s true: Not 60 hours after the bare concept of the trillion-dollar patch on the Bush administration’s latest blowout was approved, literally in the first hour of stock market trading, I heard both professionals and ordinary people lamenting that it had failed. By the end of the first week, everybody was fretting: We spent all that money, and my 401(k) is still in the dumper?

It goes without saying—actually it doesn’t, or I wouldn’t have to say it—that we aren’t going to tunnel our way out of this mess by Thanksgiving. Optimistic forecasters are saying there may be hints by Easter; realists hope for the end of 2009.

But we live in the land of the instant fix, where mystifying dramas are solved day and night in 60 minutes with time for commercials. When we spend all that money (actually only plan to spend it; Penny One has yet to be disbursed), we expect things to be better by morning. It’s the American way.

And that’s what can queer the deal for a new president. After all the buildup, after nearly two years of campaigning (a terrible idea, and one that should be addressed before 2012), we’re likely to expect the winner to lift us instantly from a pit it took the Bushies eight years to dig. It won’t happen, it can’t happen, and if we let that make us impatient, we’re doomed to do this all over again.