As of Monday, the Real Clear Politics average of presidential polls had President Obama five points ahead. Based on what he was hearing, Nate Silver, the New York Times' poll specialist, had granted Obama 316.9 electoral votes and Mitt Romney 221.1. Intrade, "the world's leading prediction market," had Obama's chances figured at 59.7 percent, versus a sobering, if not a gimme-a-double-scotch-depressing 40.3.
Obama bounced off a spirited Democratic convention into the affectionate arms of his countrypersons, who evidently think things are going well enough for them now to postpone major anxieties until 2016.
Prudence and experience alike have taught the necessity of not reading too much into post-convention polls. At the same time, the polls clarify as readings of human sentiment generally do. What do the polls tell us about the political lay of the land? Two things, I think -- one immediate, the other longer term.
The immediate thing is that the country is closely divided. Many of us want one thing, many want another. The numbers are very close together, similar to sentiments regarding the presidential contenders. A great many people want government power under closer watch and control. A great many others like the level of government power we now have, and could be talked into extending the franchise.
Who wins? That's of course what elections are about: which candidate gets to apply his philosophy to the solution of public problems, or, rather, who gets to try. In Charlotte, Bill Clinton put the matter about as well as anyone else: "The most important question is, what kind of country do you want to live in?" Then Clinton launched into a stereotype and caricature (and he knew it). I quote him anyway: "If you want a you're-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility, and a we're-all-in-this-together society -- you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. He meant that Republicans tend to value freedom, Democrats tend to cultivate dependence on government. The crowds on both sides of the street are thick anyway: two visions of America, with many hearts migrating back and forth.
What this means is that whoever wins, probably narrowly, has a dramatic task. He can govern with 50 percent, or 49.5, but at huge cost. Obama, whose winning margin in 2008 was distorted by "Bush fatigue" and the recession, found the country much more divided than he had thought. He proposed Obamacare. Up went the boos and hisses. Eventually he had to ram the thing down our throats. It was no one's definition of leadership. Bullyship was more like it. The administration's take-that-you-conservative-jerk style of governing makes real governing next to impossible.
Not that Mitt's good nature (an attribute rarely charged to Obama's account) would make it particularly easy for him to do the hard, sometimes heartbreaking, things he wants to do. Not in a 50 percent climate. He needs all the so-called mandate he can command, and he ought to receive it if he bucks up the economy and re-plugs the job-creating machine.
The Clinton view of how the two parties operate -- one saying go to work, you bum; the other whispering, hey, buddy, let me stand you a drink -- insults normal intelligence. But it shows how delicate the task is of running a split country. My Way or the Highway Obama seems not to appreciate the delicacy -- a blind spot through which Romney-Ryan could drive an 18-wheeler by showing our divided electorate that freedom isn't about winners taking all. Rather, it's about allowing winners to take anything the government doesn't assign them. And if the Republicans flop at that task? Get ready, I guess, for four years of we're-all-in-this-together (so work, work, you one percenters! Who do you think will pay for this country otherwise?).