Morning after

As we head into the final stretch of campaign 2012, what many will call the most consequential election of our lifetime (always true until four years later), let us gird for the disappointment that awaits us. 

Yes, no matter who wins the presidency on Nov. 6, he will lead a nation of anxious, distrustful and disappointed citizens who have little faith in government, the banks, the Supreme Court, the media or even the president of the United States. Either President Obama or former Gov. Mitt Romney is likely to win a squeaker, not a landslide, and his approval ratings are likely to dive lower than his winning margin within a mere weeks. 

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Why? It isn’t just political polarization that has made destroying someone the day after he is elected a national pastime for a significant portion of the population. We happen to have a true emergency on our hands. The U.S. Congress soon will be busy warring over the fiscal cliff, scrambling to come up with $4 trillion in new revenue to extend tax cuts, cut the deficit, avert the drastic military cuts scheduled by the sequester to come online in January, clean up the tax code and even reform entitlements. No matter what happens under the Capitol Dome, and no matter how much the two parties and the two chambers blame each other, the president-elect cannot punt or procrastinate on the ticking bomb that is set to go off at New Year’s. Either Romney or Obama will be forced to help shape an agreement to stave off a devastating hit to the economy that would bring on another recession and depress growth for years to come. The next president’s response to the crisis could have political reverberations throughout his presidency, for better or worse.

As Romney and Obama continue campaigning for the highest office in the land, it’s important to note that they never, ever, talk about the sinking ship they will have to rescue the morning after the election. It’s just too complicated, politically perilous and, well, important. Romney will occasionally sound off on how devastating the defense cuts would be, but then again his running mate — Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanClinton targets Trump on race Clinton to receive first classified briefing Saturday Clinton enjoying edge over Trump in Silicon Valley MORE (Wis.) — and the entire GOP leadership team in Congress voted for the deal that created them. He isn’t, however, willing to offer a detailed plan to extend all the Bush tax cuts, avoid the military cuts and reduce the deficit all at once in December. And neither is Obama. So their failure to tackle the fiscal cliff in their presidential campaigns is an early abdication by both Obama and Romney, one that follows the victor into the Oval Office. Expect them, of course, to project a profound sense of urgency when the time comes.

But let’s cut Romney and Obama some slack, because the two political parties in general are attracting so much scorn. New polls show both the Republican and Democratic parties have reached historic lows in popularity. The newest ABC News-Washington Post poll shows that “The Democrats, while slightly more popular than unpopular, are near record lows,” and the Republicans “are underwater.” 

Simply put, the morning after the 2012 presidential election is likely to bring more of a headache than a fresh start. If Obama wins, we don’t know what we are getting because he hasn’t told us — we know it won’t be change; Obama isn’t selling that anymore. If Romney wins, we have been promised 12 million new jobs, but trying to imagine him getting anything through a paralyzed Congress isn’t easy to do. He has never told us how he will. 

Perhaps expectations are so low that the winner can only succeed.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.