During a late September gathering with voters to talk about jobs and the economy, Scott Turner of Richmond, Va., had something more elementary than the unemployment rate on his mind when he posed a question to President Obama:
"Is there any hope for us returning to civility in our discourse?" Turner asked.
Six weeks later — at the end of a bitterly fought campaign that ended poorly for Obama and the Democrats — a chastened president professed optimism. "I do believe there is hope for civility," Obama said. "I do believe there is hope for progress."
To that end, Obama on Nov. 30 will host new congressional leaders for a private meeting at the White House. How it goes — particularly between Obama and incoming Republican House speaker John Boehner of Ohio — will set the stage for new congressional debates over a range of crucial issues: how to create jobs, whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts, challenges to the health care overhaul Democrats pushed through Congress this year, and more.
As the 2012 presidential campaign looms and the economy stays stagnant, political tensions are high amid profound disagreements over the role and size of government. Moderates in both parties are launching a new push for civility, but the loudest voices tend to come from the extremes. The Tea Party movement that helped Republicans take over the House and narrow Democrats' advantage in the Senate was inspired largely by conservatives angered by the growth of government, most recently under Obama.
History suggests it will be tough to change the tone in Washington. From the bitter election of 1800 to today, attacks and false accusations have been staples of American political contests. This year, though, was particularly intense — and offered a preview of what's to come as the parties fight for control of the White House.
After a hyper-partisan campaign during which Obama cast his political foes as "enemies" and a Tea Party billboard compared him to Adolf Hitler, "it's going to be an exceptional, exceptional challenge" for politicians to work together, says former Republican congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Even after Obama issued his invitation to the White House meeting, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans should focus on a starkly political goal: to "deny President Obama a second term."
"The gloves are off," University of Texas presidential historian Bruce Buchanan says. "Ultimately, politics is a substitute for war. ... Is civility impossible? No. Is it likely? No."
Some voters, activists from both parties and former members of Congress say they've heard enough pitched political posturing. They say they are appalled by the nasty discourse, sick of attack ads and disgusted with a political culture that values winning at any cost while leaving important work undone.
"There is a growing consensus that this negativity, this hostility is harmful to our democracy," says Daniel Shea of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, which has been tracking voter concern about incivility in politics throughout the year. The center's new poll, released this month, finds that nearly three in four registered voters believe the fall election was one of the nastiest they'd seen.