Now is the October of our discontent.

First of all, George W. Bush showed up on TV Friday morning to reassure the nation. What could possibly be worse?

Everybody knows that anything our president says is very likely wrong, and certainly won’t happen. If he announced: “I’m sending government agents to Spokane to arrest the looters,” we would expect that the officials would get lost, nobody would be arrested, and the looters probably never existed in the first place.

So hearts sunk throughout the nation when Bush appeared at a Chamber of Commerce gathering to say that the economy would recover.

“America is the most attractive destination for investors around the globe. America is the home of the most talented and enterprising and creative workers in the world,” said the president, who also insisted that “democratic capitalism remains the greatest system ever devised.”

Which translates into: all the money is going to Asia, nobody will ever get a job again and Karl Marx was right after all.

Bummer.

Americans are also in a very low state about the presidential elections. Once again we’ve hit that magic moment when both sides are sure they’re going to lose.

The Republicans are deeply depressed. Only Sarah Palin is chipper, perhaps because, as she told her supporters, the staff won’t let her watch the news.

The Democrats are terrified. They’re convinced something terrible is going to happen because something terrible always happens. Look at 2000! Look at 2004! All the exit polls said it was going to be Kerry and then he lost. How could that happen? Because God hates Democrats, that’s why.

It’s like the curse of the Bambino. The Democrats fear they’re under a jinx because they committed some sin, the political equivalent of trading away Babe Ruth. If so, it probably started with nominating Joe Lieberman for vice president.

The only people who seem to have faith that Barack Obama can pull this off are the Republicans. They thought McCain did well in the final debate and were crushed when viewers only saw his rolling eyes and glares.

Maybe McCain’s problem is not his temperament but his positions. It’s hard to be cheerful and self-satisfied when you’re peddling an unpopular product.

This week, when McCain made appearances at the Al Smith dinner and “The Late Show With David Letterman,” he was funny and self-deprecating. Suddenly you remembered — this guy used to be likeable. Back before he was trying to argue that what a country in economic collapse needs most is tax cuts for the rich and an end to Senate earmarks.

With less than three weeks to go, saddled with an unpopular ideology and an unattractive candidate, the McCain campaign’s deep thinkers decided the only possible hope was …

Joe the Plumber! Joe is, of course, the conservative guy from northwestern Ohio who told Obama: “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more” because he planned to buy a business that he hoped would reel in more than $250,000 a year in profits.

The proper answer, as Obama should have known, was: “No, it won’t.”

Instead, he engaged JtheP in conversation, remarking that it might be helpful in this time of crisis to “spread the wealth around” a little. Since this was before George W. Bush put the nail into the coffin of capitalism at the Chamber of Commerce speech, Joe was appalled.

The Republican presidential campaign is now all Joe, all the time. Obama’s plan to give tax breaks to people making less than $200,000 a year is being described on a McCain Internet ad as “welfare government handouts.” In Miami, Lieberman told a rally that McCain would “fight for José el plomero!”

Meanwhile, Joe was happily standing in his front yard, holding forth to the assembled national news media on his theories about everything from Social Security (bad) to the war in Iraq (good). And do not condemn him, people, unless you imagine that if all the cable television reporters in the world were in your driveway, begging for your opinion on the state of the nation, you would say: “No, I leave that to the experts.”

You should, however, understand that once the interview is over, the reporters will go down the street and ask the sanitation man whether you’ve ever failed to recycle.

Joe the Plumber, it turns out, is actually named Samuel and is not a licensed plumber. He has a lien on his house for unpaid taxes. While his professional life is still a little hazy, there is not much evidence he’s ever going to become a small business owner. And he would be a beneficiary of the Barack Obama tax plan.

I think the lessons here are very clear:

1) Do not organize your presidential campaign around a guy you’ve only seen on YouTube.

2) Before you become a media sensation, examine your conscience and start separating the bottles and newspapers.

3) Never let George W. Bush mention you at a Chamber of Commerce speech.

* By GAIL COLLINS (NYT; October 18, 2008)