The country described by the president on Tuesday night in his final State of the Union address is the most powerful nation on earth and on the rise again, with more jobs, better health care and stunning innovation. Although grappling with serious challenges, it is poised for greater progress.Baker quotes a former Obama speechwriter, who thinks -- as many observers do -- that the GOP approach, at least in the Donald Trump version, is doomed to failure:
By contrast, the country that Republican presidential candidates will depict on Thursday night in their next nationally televised debate is a darker place, a once-great power that has lost ground in a dangerous world, surrendered its authority and leadership with allies and enemies alike, and diminished freedom and opportunity at home.
Whichever view ultimately seems more credible to the public will help determine who succeeds Mr. Obama next January and sets the nation’s course for the following four years.
“Tonight was President Obama’s morning-in-America response to the malaise speech that the Republican candidates have been delivering for the last year,” said Jon Favreau, the president’s former chief speechwriter. “From Reagan to Clinton and Obama, people have never elected a pessimistic president who talks about America like it’s a ‘Mad Max’ movie.”But is that true? Specifically, is that true about Ronald Reagan?
Everyone remembers Reagan's "sunny optimism," but in his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican convention, he really brought the doom and gloom:
Never before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence, any one of which could destroy us. We face a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity....Yes, I'm cherry-piking these quotes to some extent -- but there's a lot to cherry-pick. Reagan did also say,
First we must overcome something the present Administration has cooked up: a new and altogether indigestible economic stew, one part inflation, one part high unemployment, one part recession, one part runaway taxes, one part deficit spending and seasoned by an energy crisis. It’s an economic stew that has turned the national stomach. It is as if Mr. Carter had set out to prove, once and for all, that economics is indeed a “dismal science.”
Ours are not problems of abstract economic theory. These are problems of flesh and blood; problems that cause pain and destroy the moral fiber of real people who should not suffer the further indignity of being told by the White House that it is all somehow their fault....
Our problems are both acute and chronic....
The American people are carrying the heaviest peacetime tax burden in our nation’s history – and it will grow even heavier, under present law, next January. This burden is crushing our ability and incentive to save, invest and produce. We are taxing ourselves into economic exhaustion and stagnation....
Thanks to the economic policies of the Democratic party, millions of Americans find themselves out of work. Millions more have never even had a fair chance to learn new skills, hold a decent job, seize the opportunity to climb the ladder and secure for themselves and their families a share in the prosperity of this nation....
Adversaries large and small test our will and seek to confound our resolve, but the Carter Administration gives us weakness when we need strength; vacillation when the times demand firmness.
Why? Because the Carter Administration live in the world of make-believe. Every day, it dreams up a response to that day’s troubles, regardless of what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow. The Administration lives in a world where mistakes, even very big ones, have no consequence.
The rest of us, however, live in the real world. It is here that disasters are overtaking our nation without any real response from the White House....
The American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves. Those who believe we can have no business leading the nation. I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself under mediocre leadership that drifts from one crisis to the next, eroding our national will and purpose. We have come together here because the American people deserve better from those to whom they entrust our nation’s highest offices, and we stand united in our resolve to do something about it.In other words, he was going to make America great again.
In 1980, the public bought this. Will the public buy gloom and doom this year? Well, Frank Luntz conducted a State of the Union focus group last night, and it's clear that the Republicans, at least, agree that America is a nightmarish hellscape:
And that we're failing at all sorts of things:
Close to half the country apparently thinks we live in Mad Max America. That's not unprecedented. It's reminiscent of 1980.
Reagan seemed sunny because, ultimately, he radiated cheerfulness. But Donald Trump often seems to be enjoying himself, too. In a pessimistic country, that may be enough positivity to get elected.