Two-thirds of Americans say they are scared about the way things are going in the United States today, and three-quarters say they are angry, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released yesterday. Such a high level of dissatisfaction has surfaced only three times in the past 40 years, CNN's polling director said - during the Watergate scandal (1973-4), the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-80) and the 1992 recession.

It may seem like the only place to go is up, but quite a few Americans realize that both presidential candidates are expecting citizens to do their part - and not all the voters are happy about that.

Although America is facing serious challenges that demand exceptional leadership, neither leading candidate has offered a comprehensive vision. Instead, each has presented standard platforms and employed utterly conventional weapons: One embraces "Joe the Plumber," the other wins the endorsement of former secretary of state Colin Powell. Until a few weeks ago, Republican candidate John McCain could barely get through a single speech (even a single sentence, some would say) without mentioning Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of coalition forces in Iraq. Now Petraeus has had his place taken by Joe Wurzelbacher.

The McCain campaign is taking the slogan "We're all Joe the Plumber" very seriously. The Arizona senator's campaign Web site suggests that voters send in their own 30-second video versions of the Ohio contractor's tale of hard work and pursuit of the American dream. Perhaps another Joe the Plumber is about to win his or her own 30 seconds of fame.

Had the Republican Party not been in such a difficult situation after two terms under President George W. Bush, Joe the Plumber might well have been able to save McCain's campaign. McCain's effort has become sunk in a mire of negative advertising, for which the public has recently expressed its distaste. In a time of economic crisis, the story of "Joe the Plumber" is making no less a contribution to the Republican campaign than the popular Powell is making to the Democratic one, especially since the endorsement of Barack Obama is tainted by the suspicion that it amounts to little more than one prominent African-American supporting another.

Some say Powell's endorsement is nothing but a gimmick, no less cynical than McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running partner, a heartbeat away from the presidency. And some are convinced that talking up Joe the Plumber was a great idea for McCain's campaign, because with all due respect to the war in Iraq, the plight of the working man interests Americans more than the accomplishments of Petraeus, just as Palin's energy and folksy speech genuinely inspire some Republicans.

But on the cusp of the election, it's tough not to conclude that while America yearns for a leader to reshape it or at least give it direction, the voters' expectations are what dictate the behavior of both candidates. Thus the campaign discourse keeps getting stuck on issues like taxes and sewage. Instead of saying, "This is how I want to see America," both are trying to put a mirror in front of the country that will showcase its beauty. The voters, for their part, want to hope, but are scared of being disappointed. They're not sure if they believe in themselves or if they would rather believe in a leader who will do the impossible for them, and quickly - without calling on them to make any more sacrifices.

Americans may be addicted to tear-jerker clips on the Oprah Winfrey Show, but there is nothing trivial about the fear they are experiencing now. Ordinary Americans often add a "but" to statements about the tough times, which is then followed by a patriotic remark. Quite a few Americans are beginning to feel that instead of living the American dream, they are becoming enslaved to it. In order to maintain a large home and an impressive car, they must now count every dollar when it comes to other expenses. Some families carefully limit the amount of food given to each person. There are no extra treats because there is no budget for it, and don't even think about trips abroad. Some have recently given up on vacations altogether.

The Americans are trying to guess what Obama means when he says that the average citizen, not just the government and the corporations, will have to pull his or her weight. Does he mean they should move from the suburbs to the city, maybe live in a small apartment and take the subway to work? Enough. It's preferable to just point the finger at Wall Street greed, as McCain does.

Criticizing the United States might be the fashionable thing to do outside of the country, but as a man from Tennessee put it: We're willing to give our money, but then they say "You're not alright," instead of saying "Thank you." We're not perfect, but America can deal with its problems on its own. We don't need ideas. If the best thing our leaders can suggest is that we take care of our problems on our own, maybe they should stop asking every minute for donations to their campaigns just so they can tell us that.