When Barack Obama was a state legislator in Illinois, he occasionally used the tactic of voting "present" on certain bills, because the measures, as written, were flawed and the goal was to get them improved before passage. It worked as a legislative maneuver, but was misrepresented years later by political opponents who claimed it was a sign of wishy-washiness.
In the upcoming midterm elections, many Americans wish they, too, could just vote "present." They're frustrated because the administration's four-year plans haven't been completed in two. They're fed up with the Democrats' inability to reach across the aisle, as was promised in the '08 campaign, to find compromises with the opposition. And above all, they're genuinely frightened that the depressed economy will cause permanent damage to our way of life, if it hasn't already.
Many of these folks want to send an angry message, but "present" isn't a ballot option. They'd probably also appreciate a "Comments" section at the bottom of each ballot, although it's likely that most of the comments would be X-rated.
Faced with similar frustrations in the past, some people decided that the closest thing to "present" was a vote for third-party candidates who had no chance whatsoever of winning. Other voters simply stayed home.
None of this works in the American system, where most elections, certainly those for national offices, are decided by relatively slight shifts within the middle. These voters, sometimes called "swing" voters, or "undecideds," are wooed aggressively -- and this year, there are more of them than usual.
This is perilous, not just for candidates, but for the governing system, because swing voters tend to be the least informed and the most likely to make rash ballot decisions based more on emotion than logic. In America's modern political structure, it's rarely about candidates; it's almost always about parties. Any voter who tap dances in the center, claiming it's time to "give the other party a chance," doesn't understand the issues or the true party positions.
The biggest fear for Democrats this fall is that many who voted for Obama in '08 will demonstrate frustration in '10 by not voting at all. This is confirmed in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that shows Democrats still rank higher than Republicans among all adults, but plunge dramatically when the survey is limited to "likely voters." Clearly, the Republican base is angry and energized, while the Democrats' base is barely "present."
If no-show voters give Republicans control of Congress, it wouldn't send a message, it would derail the entire effort to extract the nation from problems created during eight years of the Bush Administration. Americans might not like where we are today, but they should be more fearful of a return to the recent past, and they ought to be cautiously optimistic about where we're headed.
By 2012 military operations in Afghanistan will be reduced at least to the maintenance levels now seen in Iraq. The health-care bill that the Obama Administration spent so much political capital to achieve will have been established to a point where many Americans can actually experience the benefits rather than just read about them. And the economy, which shows signs of stabilizing, will very likely have turned around, and with that will come more jobs for American workers.
Of course there are many stumbling blocks, but the biggest is the November election. If Republicans gain control of Congress - and with it the power of the purse -- they could dash all hopes of completing America's resurrection. Their goal would be to so thoroughly thwart Obama's progress that a Republican challenger, whoever he or she might be, could take over the White House in 2012.
Democrats have less than two months remaining to drive home the message: You can't just vote "present," you must be both present and accounted for.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate.