What’s Missing for 2012: The Anger Gene

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Let’s face it, Americans are angry. Whether they’re from the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, or even the silent majority, polls show they’re mad as hell with the political status quo. The problem is, if Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee – as it’s looking increasingly likely he will be – the 2012 election will be a match between two men missing the anger gene.

Obama has long been known for his self-discipline.  “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds,” he wrote in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father. “One of those tricks I had learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved — such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.” In TIME’s cover story on presidential temperament in 2008, we labeled Obama ice to John McCain’s fire. Yes, Obama learned populism as a community organizer in Chicago, but he’s never been an agitator. The closest he came in his 2008 campaign was his “Fired Up! Ready to go!” mantra, but he was always more ready to go than fired up. Nor is the former University of Chicago professor’s style particularly empathetic: he’s more professorial than understanding.

Romney’s political identity is a throwback to the 1950’s, replete with frequent exclamations of “Golly gee gosh.” And imagining him in a fit of anger is like Ward Cleaver going postal – it’s simply unfathomable. And as for empathy, Romney is the CEO, more comfortable with spread sheets than charity.

So does this mean the angry crowd is up for grabs in the next election? History suggests that unhappy voters back the challenger. But both candidates are making a play for the disgruntled. Obama is running against Congress, as Harry Truman in his narrow victory in 1948. Like the maddened crowds, he’s furious at congressional dysfunction. And Obama’s top political adviser David Plouffe has made overtures to the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Romney, meanwhile, slams Obama every chance he gets for dropping the ball on the economy, including in his first television ad of the cycle out this week in New Hampshire. And has spent the last two years carefully courting the Tea Party.

Still, it’s hard to imagine either one of these candidates naturally harnessing the discontent of the masses. In fact, this general election is shaping up to be one of the least enthusiastic in a generation. A reminder of how important enthusiasm is: a complete lack of base excitement led McCain to pick Sarah Palin in 2008. Still, Obama and Romney are perhaps each other’s best foil.“The way they harness the votes of much angrier constituents is simply by being on the ballot opposite the person despised by the Occupiers (Romney, if he’s the GOP nominee) and the Tea Party (Obama),” says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.  “It’s built on one of the oldest political principles, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”