In his book Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni asked: “You want to run for president? Here’s what you need to do: Have someone write you a lovely speech that stakes out popular positions in unwavering language and less popular positions in fuzzier terms. Better yet, if it bows to God and country at every turn — that’s called uplift. Make it rife with optimism, a trumpet blast not just about morning in America but about a perpetual dazzling dawn. Avoid talk of hard choices and daunting challenges; nobody wants those. Nod to people on all points of the political spectrum ... Add a soupcon of alliteration. Sprinkle with a few personal observations or stories — it humanizes you. Stir with enthusiasm.”
So it was at the beginning of the year, as the Republicans competed to see who could paint the gloomiest picture of US President Barack Obama’s America, that the president reached back for the signature theme of his 2008 campaign: hope. Seeking to channel former US president Ronald Reagan’s re-election theme of 1984, when the nation was emerging from economic crisis, he used his state of the union speech in January to claim “America is back.”
“Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Obama said.
He test drove the phrase in a range of settings.
“I placed my bet on the American worker,” he told a union conference in Washington. “The American auto industry is back.”
A month later — in Houston, Texas, at a fundraiser — he told donors: “The recovery is accelerating. America is coming back.”
This was by no means an absurd claim. By February, there had been three straight months of employment growth; the final quarter of last year showed a spike in consumer borrowing, signaling both more consumption and more lending. Coming into spring, many felt they witnessed the green shoots of economic recovery. And, electorally, it seemed like a smart one. US voters may want politicians to reflect on their fragility, but they have never been particularly keen on them actually reflecting it. The country was emerging from two failed wars and the most severe recession since the Great Depression. Confidence in their political and financial classes was shattered; assumptions about its military supremacy were dented. According to Gallup, the last time most Americans thought they were satisfied with the direction the country was heading in was January 2004 — that stint of optimism lasted less than a week.
The Republicans were wedded to the notion that under Obama, the US was in decline. Former US senator Rick Santorum, a Republican presidential hopeful, claimed it was an election “to save the soul of America” — prompting the question, who had lost it? His Republican rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, insisted he had to return the nation to a day when “each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter.” Obama’s message was: “Walk tall. We’re on our way.”
There was only one problem: People did not believe it. In February, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research focus-grouped four different ways of framing the nation’s economic trajectory. Two concentrated on the enduring struggles of US middle-class families and two claimed recovery was under way. The two that did best argued: “This is a make-or-break time for the middle class and for all those trying to get into it.” The one that tested worst, by a considerable margin, claimed: “America is back.”