Political Animal


January 10, 2012 2:40 PM Optimism vs. pessimism

By Steve Benen

The New York Times’s Andrew Rosenthal checked in yesterday with a report on the latest Mitt Romney/Chris Christie event in New Hampshire. A line from the end of the report stood out for me.

There was one bad moment — when he quoted a Romney line, that Mr. Obama was “the most pessimistic man I’ve ever seen in the Oval Office.”

The Romney crowd is very proud of that line. I have no idea what it means.

The Romney campaign seems to be preoccupied at times with touting its optimism — not about the Republican nominating race, per se, but just in general about the future. And as part of the same pitch, of course, Romney and his team are also trying to convince us that President Obama isn’t just a pessimist, but he’s actually the “most pessimistic man.”

I know why Romney does this, but it doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.

Whenever this subject comes up, the conventional wisdom generally tells us we’re supposed to think of Ronald Reagan, since “optimism” was a key element of his appeal. It was fundamental, we’re told, to understanding his entire persona — the former president had an infectious optimism.

I tend to think much of this is just hype and p.r., but the myth has endured to the point that it shapes coverage of presidential campaigns. The media scrutinizes contenders based on their capacity to be the “optimistic” candidate.

And campaigns take this seriously, too. In 2004, one of the first big general-election ad buys from the Bush/Cheney camp was for an ad that quoted the then-president saying, “I’m optimistic about America because I believe in the people of America.” A voice over said John Kerry was “talking about the Great Depression. One thing’s sure — pessimism never created a job.”

And here we are again, with the GOP frontrunner complaining about the president being “pessimistic.”

There are two broad problems with the Romney campaign’s pitch.

The first is that there is a pessimistic vision on the table, but it’s not from Democrats. In his debt-reduction speech in April, Obama took on Paul Ryan’s House Republican budget plan from a variety of directions, but he specifically noted, “I believe [the GOP plan] paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic.”

It’s a compelling charge. Not only are Republicans miserable about the present, they’re also presenting a dour vision of the future, with the elderly, low-income families, students, small businesses, and struggling communities all left to fend for themselves. How does Mitt Romney’s vision differ from congressional Republicans’ vision? It doesn’t.

The other problem here is that Barack Obama has an unyielding optimism that’s hard to miss. The president delivered a speech to supporters in D.C. last night and the remarks are worth reading — the crux of the speech was about how optimistic he is.

Romney’s clearly invested in this, but it’s a mistake. Voters are supposed to believe Mr. Hope and Yes We Can is “the most pessimistic” president in modern times? Even Obama’s harshest critics are going to have a tough time buying it.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • RepublicanPointOfView on January 10, 2012 2:49 PM:

    Even Obama's harshest critics are going to have a tough time buying it.

    No! Our low information voters will believe whatever Fox News and Rush tell them to believe. Today, the Rushbo was gushing positively over Romney's "I like to fire people" comment. Rushbo believers will now know that we need a president who likes to fire people.

  • Neil B on January 10, 2012 2:50 PM:

    Heh, "Even Obama’s harshest critics are going to have a tough time buying it." - Steve, Steve - Obama's harshest critics are deranged, hateful people. Logic doesn't matter. They can believe anything as long as it's bad. Even the emo-prog/pony-holdout left can believe almost anything about him, so bad is the Obama derangement syndrome.

  • g on January 10, 2012 2:52 PM:

    I thought the standard Republican line was that they have to take our "ruined" country "back" from the evil Soshulizm and Marxism that threatens to destroy our Amuhrican way of life - But they're optomists!

  • schtick on January 10, 2012 2:52 PM:


  • c u n d gulag on January 10, 2012 2:52 PM:

    Mitt's trying to be optimistic, just like good old Grandpa Ron?

    As much as I always HATED Reagan - Mitt ain't a putrid dingleberry on Ol' Ronnies ass!

    Reagan may have been a brain damaged rich Hollywood actor turned politician, but he had a sense of who he was, and what people were, and what they liked.

    MITT 3.0 constantly needs upgrading and scripting, and the stupid Cyborg still says stupid sh*t like 'liking to fire people.'

    Would those words EVER have passed Ol' Ronnie's withered lips?

    Mitt - YOU BRING OUT THE PESSIMISM IN EVERYONE WHO EVER MEETS YOU! Unless they're part of your 1% club.

  • bleh on January 10, 2012 2:54 PM:

    Even if you write off the 27%, what you're left with is the "low-information voter," most of whom make their choices on vague emotional grounds, which in turn are founded on half-remembered factoids, friends' opinions, the last few commercials they've seen, etc. And the objective with those voters is simply to chip away at Obama, and to associate him with the bad-stuff-that's-happening. Obama pessimistic = bad. Obama pessimistic = responsible for economic problems / not trying hard enough to fix them.

    It's a mistake to get too analytical or factual about these sorts of efforts, IMO.

  • hells littlest angel on January 10, 2012 3:04 PM:

    Like the companies he bled out with Bain Capital, not all of Romney's lies can be expected to succeed.

  • Ken D. on January 10, 2012 3:05 PM:

    It is a simple debasement of the language in which any positive adjective always applies to one's own side, any negative adjective to the opposition. A parallel is that our combatants are always brave, even if operating at high altitude out of enemy fire range, or from a drone-control hangar thousands of miles away. An opponent is always cowardly, even if risking death in close combat for family and/or community. That is all there is to it.

  • bigtuna on January 10, 2012 3:06 PM:

    A theological interlude ... based on what I understand of the LDS world view, this is pretty funny. From what I gather from my neighbors, the mormon predisposition for their "can do" " optimistic" view is actually about accumulating souls in this earthly realm, and of course their stuff, as a waypoint on to the final destination of their celestial kingdom. Earth is a transitory point, and is to be "used to its full potential" to quote many a Utah politician. ie, plundered.

    Ultimately, mormonism is a very pessimistic culture, as the human realm is not much to be worried about. [there is noting wierder than an LDS funeral, as there is little mourning - the fact that a soul was brought from some etherial spirit world to Earth for its ultimate deposition in the CK is what it is all about - this the opposition to abortion rights].

    I am not making this up, btw.

  • Danp on January 10, 2012 3:09 PM:

    You have to admit, Romney is pretty optimistic about being able to say anything he wants without scrutiny, even as he tries to lead the Chicken Little Brigade in its constant fear of marriage and military destroyed by gays, the economy destroyed by any regulations, our position in the world destroyed by apologies, the federal balance sheet destroyed by corporate jet depreciation schedules, our electoral system destroyed by Mickey Mouse, and capitalism itself destroyed by a 4% increase in marginal tax rates for the most wealthy.

  • Josef K on January 10, 2012 3:14 PM:

    Even Obama’s harshest critics are going to have a tough time buying it.

    Others have already noted the likely Republican voter will buy most anything Romney and fellow mouthpieces speak. Such beliefs aren't based upon facts or calm analysis, especially when they're sustaining what's essentially a tribal identity, and so these voters have little incentive to examine or challenge them.

    In short, PT Barnum was right, and millions of Americans will (once again) vote for the guy who'll happily screw us all for a buck.

  • BillFromPA on January 10, 2012 3:17 PM:

    The correct retort to this line, if it survives into the general election, is, 'It's the GOP that's telling us that not only can't we afford to improve in the future, we've got to un-do most of what Americans have enjoyed for the last 75 years'. No We Can't is their motto, and if at least 51% of the electorate fails to regognize this, then the collective 'we' deserves the bleak fate the wingnut have planned for us.

  • Perspecticus on January 10, 2012 3:19 PM:

    That quote is part of an ad campaign romney has been running in Massachusetts the past couple weeks (probably all of New England, at least, I'm thinking). He also says things like, "detour not a destiny" (referring to Obama's first term so far) and something about how little faith Obama has in America.

    And as always, I object to your incredulity regarding what Obama's harshest critics could possibly believe about him. I believe it has been proven to date that Obama's critics are as capable of believing the most outlandish accusations imaginable as they are in dreaming up the accusations in the first place.

  • Hedda Peraz on January 10, 2012 3:21 PM:

    Not only is Obama pessimistic, he is also uppity, shiftless, lazy, and can't handle money.
    But cut him some slack. It's in his Nature.

  • jjm on January 10, 2012 3:23 PM:

    One has to wonder at the mass psychosis or mass hysteria of the GOP and the deep South of late.

    From the Georgia school using examples of slaves being whipped (in their math exercises), to the GOP wet dreams about restoring robber barons to their rightful control of the nation, to the Rand Paul/Rick Santorum/Ron Paul desire to overturn civil rights and voting acts so we can enjoy "freedom" -- the freedom to treat minorities and women with contempt, disdain or worse, to the dreams of putting getting rid of science ....

    The GOP in particular seems to be suffering from the delusions produced by their severe reaction-formation against the realities of twenty-first century life : these delusions range from the silly, like this Romney statement, to the frightening as in the fantasies produced by the GOP TP House, Rick Santorum, et al.

    The reason the GOP cannot 'hit the mark' in criticizing Obama is because they are seeing the world through their delusions.

  • Kuji on January 10, 2012 3:37 PM:

    I don't think it's a far stretch to plug on the end of what Conservatives already believe President Obama is:

    A foreign born Kenyan national parading around with a non-existant long form birth certificate he has put out to the public who is unpatriotic and hates America so much that he can't stop apologizing to Europe elitists and wants to model America after current Europe socialist Model but has the audacity to not model America after current Europe austerity policies. The nerve. If only we could get out of this Chicago style rough em up politics dirty politics we could continue on a fixing this countries problem. Its impossible to work with this uncompromising hitler style admistration. He is a bully and a stigama to the legislative branch that would pass bills - if only he would sign them. George Washington himself would call for revolution if he was alive today. Its a good thing God told me who the next president will be and boy I cant tell you who it is - but im just glad God knows Obama is tryimg to destroy this country by not cutting taxes right here right now today. All Obama wants to do is give out welfare checks and cut corporate subsidies. He is pessimisstic alright - bleak vision of the future that Obama has.

    Raze the Fed! Hail to the only one who sticks to his comvictions!

    Ron Paul 2012

    did i miss anything? This ia general the type of chatter i see from the right.

  • Jewish Steel on January 10, 2012 3:39 PM:

    Not a lot of mystery in light of Romney's latter day St Ronnieism.

    Hell, Balloon Juice has had this as a tag for a long time:


  • NHCt on January 10, 2012 3:40 PM:

    Mitt has a classic show don't tell problem. He states these things, be it on pessimism or Obama wanting to create a socialist wonderland, but doesn't bring them to life. Reagan's people knew the optics were the only things that mattered, which is how during negative TV stories, they always managed to have the b-roll of Reagan always be of him smiling and waving. In the same way, Obama has a way of always coming off as positive, no matter the situation. His very smile, which he expertly deploys, defines him for more Americans than anything Romney can state. By contrast, watch Romney as he gives a speech. He may say he's an optimist, but he scowls, smirks and frowns his way through. He looks like a pessimist, and this is what American's will latch onto.

  • biggerbox on January 10, 2012 3:43 PM:

    Anyone who's spent the bulk of his first term believing that Republicans can be reasoned with and will compromise is optimistic to the point of delusional.

  • T2 on January 10, 2012 3:45 PM:

    I heard the "Romney is like Reagan" meme from some guy on MSNBC today - so its obviously an Approved GOP Robot Soundbite.
    The GOP is transparently Upside Down - faced with the most pessimistic and disagreeable slate of candidates in history, and a GOP Congress bent on killing economic recovery....they then blame their opponent of being the pessimist. It's trademark Karl Rove politics.

  • Fox News Fan on January 10, 2012 3:47 PM:

    That Obama fellow is very stealthy. He is really pessimistic but he pretends to be optimistic. Wait until the second term for his true colors to show.

    You know just as soon as Obama is reelected he is going to do a lot of things, like force us all to marry gay people, take away our guns, make us become Muslims or at least replace the system of American justice with Sharia law.

  • zeitgeist on January 10, 2012 3:47 PM:

    There is an error trial attorneys commit where they make certain promises to the jury in opening statements about what the case will show and then fail to actually address one or more of the promised points in the course of the trial. Romeny is doing something similar: setting up a theme he can't possibly make work in the fall.

    First there is the relatively immutable issue of their personalities. Turn the sound off during the news and watch a clip of Obama and then a clip of Romeny. By comparison, Romney looks stiff, angry, dour -- more pessimistic.

    Second the Republican strategy is predicated on things being bad -- Obama is a failure, we need austerity. Romney himself compares us to Greece or Italy -- how optimistic is that? Moreover, we have the perfect counter to the "Repubs are the optimists" line: footage of a drunk, rage-blind Boehner screaming "hell no we wont!" at the top of his lungs on the House floor.

    Sorry, all the hoping for low info voters in the world wont save this silly line of attack.

  • emjayay on January 10, 2012 5:39 PM:

    Romney has the sort of look that has been commented on above because he is working really hard every minute to figure out what he should say in any particular moment to put himself forward as the guy to vote for. What with his reversals on pretty much everything, it's obvious that that is all that is going on there. He is a one person self marketing campaign and not much else.

    I'm gay. But I even respect the totally execrable Santorum more because he is a real, if evil, person. Who of course bought a two bedroom house I guess he never lived in so he could soak some other state for his home schooling.

  • square1 on January 10, 2012 6:20 PM:

    All presidents or presidential candidates strive to be seen as optimists, forward thinkers, and leaders to a better tomorrow. Reagan is generally regarded as being unusually successful at projecting an image of an optimist, but every election features a battle for who is the most optimistic.

    Do I think that Romney's pitch will work? Not particularly. Mainly because the fundamental premise of conservatism -- that government not only doesn't work, but cannot work -- is extremely pessimistic. The conservative worldview suggests that all of the problems that liberals look to government to solve (e.g. pollution, climate change, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and corporate fraud) are inherently unsolvable. After all, if the free market solved them they wouldn't be problems in the first place.

    Having said that, do I think that Romney is being "ridiculous"? No. In politics, the only question is whether a particular strategem will work.

    My guess is that if Romney sticks with this attack, polling will show a steady increase in the number of Americans who associate Obama with pessimism. Simple repetition is highly effective.

    Democrats assume that people are rational, when they are mostly completely irrational about politics. Romney's targets aren't strong Republicans, who won't vote for Obama anyway, or strong Democrats, who wont vote for Romney. The targets are low information voters who will slowly but steadily internalize the characterization of Obama as pessimistic.

  • chi res on January 10, 2012 6:39 PM:

    One has to wonder at the mass psychosis or mass hysteria of the GOP and the deep South of late.

    Nothing new, nothing to wonder about. Racism has been a key part of the american psyche for hundreds of years.

  • RalfW on January 10, 2012 6:57 PM:

    The "most pessimistic" crap will only work inside the echo chamber, which is really just 27% crazificaiton-land anyway.

    If you only watch Fox/listen to Rush, they you do think Obama is pessimistic. Because that's the only clips that get played. They selectively edit for this meme.

    The thing is, in a general election campaign, the GOP's got the 27% crazification-factor vote sewn up.

    Meanwhile people who live in the real world experience Obama as a charismatic person who wants America to succeed (in fact, beltway conventional wisdom swillers have long marveled at Obama's relatively good approval ratings despite unemployment and an intransigent Congress. Hint to the CW/MSM: Obama is popular because he holds an affirmative vision for America's future...)

    Anyway Romney's theme - this bullshit - will just fly off the non-crazy, non-echo chamber general election voters.

    These days I think the Romney campaign is remarkably stupid. But really, neither Romney's running of Bain nor the state of MA did much to suggest competence, did it, really?

  • Proud Liberal Dem on January 10, 2012 8:04 PM:

    Interestingly enough, the pessimistic picture that Republicans paint whenever they talk about "the future" is, ironically enough, the one THEIR policies (not the Democrats' policies) will ultimately bring about.