Romney’s basic claim is that Obama doesn’t believe in American greatness, and he does. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been the basic Republican template since Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter. Democrats apologize for America, belittle America, Europeanize America while Republicans believe that as long as Americans remember their greatness and retain their optimism, everything will turn out fine.
It’s not hard to understand why Romney is reading this script: the economy is terrible, and many Americans do worry that the country is in decline. The same was true in 1980, when Reagan rode his famed patriotism and optimism to the White House. The difference is that Jimmy Carter really did seem down on America. Carter was, by nature, a scold. For his 1977 inaugural address, he proposed a quote from Chronicles—“If my people…turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land”—until aides convinced him it was too harsh. In July 1979, in his famous “malaise” speech, although he never actually used the word, he described “a crisis of confidence…growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” Well into his presidency, Carter still corrected aides’ grammatical mistakes.
Obama doesn’t project that kind of schoolmarmish moralism. And one of the reasons Romney’s attacks sounded so generic was that although he repeatedly called Obama a pessimist who doesn’t believe in America, he never actually quoted Obama as saying that. Obama’s narrative of American greatness is certainly different from Romney’s. Obama tends to talk about Americans overcoming our own limitations and becoming a better people, as in the civil-rights movement, whereas Romney envisions Americans as pure and limited only by an alien and predatory government. But Obama’s basic narrative is far more optimistic than Carter’s. And for all the GOP’s efforts to insist that Obama doesn’t believe America is a special country, Obama’s own personal story dramatically validates the American desire to believe that here—and only here—anything is possible.
In recent presidential elections, successful candidates have picked up on something that many Americans already suspected about their opponent, and used it to negatively define him. Reagan did that with Carter’s pessimism, Bill Clinton with George H.W. Bush’s lack of connection to the economic struggles of ordinary Americans, George W. Bush with John Kerry’s lack of core conviction. If there’s a worry that Americans already have about Obama, it may be that he has spent too much time in an ivory tower and he doesn’t really understand American business. That’s a critique that Romney would be well positioned to level, though it’s also an invitation to scrutinize his own business career.
The pessimism claim, by contrast, feels manufactured and inauthentic, which if Romney isn’t careful, may become the American people’s narrative about him.