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Election day: Most predictions of the next four years will be wrong (+video)

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Around the same time, another country supplied another shock. Neither Carter nor Gerald Ford had talked about Afghanistan during their 1976 contest. In fact, “Afghanistanism” was a slang term for excessive concern with unimportant parts of the world.

In December 1979, Afghanistan suddenly became important when the Soviet Union invaded. Carter, who had once spoken of an “inordinate fear of communism,” said that the invasion “has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”

CIA-backed rebels eventually pushed the Soviets out, and Afghanistan again receded from the American mind. In the Bush-Gore debates of 2000, the name of the country never came up. Even more striking in hindsight is that the issue of terrorism got only fleeting attention from the candidates. Instead of arguing about who would get tougher against our enemies, candidate George W. Bush said – and Vice President Al Gore agreed – that the US should be a strong but “humble nation.”

Everything changed on Sept. 11, 2001. The war on terror replaced compassionate conservatism as Mr. Bush’s priority, and the “humble nation” talk vanished.

The economy can move in unpredictable ways, too. During the 1990s, technological innovation fostered an economic boom, and so the federal deficit came down faster than Bill Clinton could have hoped when he took office in 1993. Sixteen years later, President Obama knew right at the start that the economy was in crisis. Nevertheless, his transition team projected that unemployment would drop below 6 percent by late 2012. Needless to say, the recovery has been slower than the forecasters had predicted.

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