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Is Sour News Good News for the Dems?

By Daniel Henninger

It is written everywhere that the public is in a sour mood. Further, that a sour nation is swell news for the election chances of Barack Obama and the Democrats. Hard to disagree.

Gas and food prices are high, the president's approval is impossibly low, housing is a national nightmare and consumer confidence is at levels not seen since 1967. With Hillary defeated, Republicans are too despondent to vote. Worse, many of their own representatives, forced to choose between killing earmarks or blowing up their control of Congress, chose spending money over holding power – the definition of a loser.

This column is not about to argue that the sour-mood hypothesis is wrong and that John McCain and the GOP will shock the world. This glum summer, the conventional wisdom is looking good.

That said . . .

Put down your buttermilk martini for a moment and check the chart below. Late last week, Gallup published its annual survey of public confidence in U.S. institutions.

At the top, with an impressive combined "great" or "a lot" approval of 71% sits the military, described since 2003 as presiding over a "failure" in Iraq.

At the bottom of the heap, displacing HMOs as our worst institution, one finds the second branch of government, our Congress, at 12%. The Gallup folks noted it is "the worst rating Gallup has measured for any institution in the 35-year history of this question." Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, come on down! You've made history.

For my currently dwindling money, this chart says more about the real source of Americans' bad mood than the cycles of the economy. Markets come and go, but most people expect the nation's major institutions to serve as reliable bedrock. No longer, and that is what really has people down.

Voters this year may toss Republicans off the Capitol dome, but Democrats have next-to-no reason to think this is a vote "for" them. For what? The same dark tides could float Democrats back to sea in 2010's off-year election.

Americans desperately want their institutions to function, and it must appall them to see confidence in public schools at 33%, the ever-divided Supreme Court at 32%, and the courts with what is essentially a vote of no confidence at 20%.

Hard to miss as well is that just below the military's high-confidence interval comes, of all things, the cops. Alfred Hitchcock once said, "I'm not against the police, I'm just afraid of them." No longer. What the U.S. military and the police have in common is successful self-reform of their institutions. It helps that self-discipline, largely dying at every level of society (such as the 12% Congress), is a primary job requirement.

The bad economy may put Barack Obama in the White House. The remarkable enthusiasm for him, though, has more to do with the demoralizing loss of confidence in major institutions. This, more than his fairly conventional policy ideas, is the appeal of his "change" candidacy. Barack Obama is the Hey-Jude candidate, the man who somehow will "make it better."

Earth to Obama belief system: Don't hold your breath.

The reason Congress doesn't perform is that the two parties have drifted into basic ideological disagreement on the way the world should work. So has much of the electorate. Roughly, the Democrats, with the decline of the industrial unions, are now the party of the public sector. The GOP, fitfully but without doubt, is the party of the private sector.

Case study: At the bottom of that confidence chart lie two nonperforming American assets, HMOs and Congress. This is about health insurance. The public wants Congress to fix it. It isn't happening.

Republicans, for example, have promoted private health savings accounts and private-sector competition. Democrats, from Hillary to Obama, want health insurance federally managed and subsidized. The parties aren't close here or on much else.

The sour mood in search of better is real enough. But the belief that Barack Obama has come among us as the angel of change looks to be a mile wide in intensity and a quarter-inch deep in reality. Many institutions are caught between a divided politics pulling hard at opposite ends of the rope. The public's sourness is just a symptom of this tension. Peace of mind – assuming people truly want that – won't come until voters decide whether the future direction of their country should be set mainly by the institutions of the private sector or by institutions of the public sector.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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