It was unexpectedly convenient to have the State of the Union address and a Republican presidential debate occur in the same week, scheduled just 48 hours apart. The bookends offered the public an opportunity, not just to hear two competing visions, but also to confront two entirely different versions of reality.
Because anyone who listened to President Obama on Tuesday night, and then the GOP presidential candidates on Thursday night, might find it hard to believe they all live in the same country at the same time.
The president made an impassioned case that Americans have reason to stand tall. We have the strongest economy on the planet, the strongest military in the history of the planet, and an unrivaled position as a global superpower. Job growth is strong, our enemies are on the run, our civil rights are a model for the world, and our insured rate is the best it’s ever been.
Obama has heard the naysayers, but he believes we’d be wise to ignore their campaign to exploit anxiety to advance their own partisan or ideological goals. We can aim higher – we can even cure cancer! – and make the future our own.
That was Tuesday night. Just two days later, the Republican Party’s national candidates were simply flabbergasted, baffled by the president’s optimism. Jeb Bush, apparently unaware of the state of the nation when his brother left the White House, insisted, “[T]he idea that somehow we’re better off today than the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States is totally an alternative universe.”
And in a way, there’s some truth to that: the president and the Republican presidential field don’t seem to occupy the same place on the space-time continuum. Obama thinks the American dream is alive and well; the GOP thinks it’s dead. The president wants the public to feel hopeful; Republicans want Americans to feel existential dread. “Alternative universes” isn’t a bad summary, all things considered.
The trouble is, Obama’s the one who seems to live in the same reality as the rest of the public.
Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum noted this morning that it’s “remarkable just how apocalyptic Republicans are this year.” As a public service, he collected the “most ominous” statements from each of the GOP candidates from last night’s debate. The list is worth checking out in its entirety, but some of my personal favorites:
Donald Trump: Our military is a disaster. Our healthcare is a horror show…. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people.Marco Rubio: This president is undermining the constitutional basis of this government. This president is undermining our military. He is undermining our standing in the world…. The damage he has done to America is extraordinary. Let me tell you, if we don’t get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.Chris Christie: When I think about the folks who are out there at home tonight watching….They know that this country is not respected around the world anymore. They know that this country is pushing the middle class, the hardworking taxpayers, backwards, and they saw a president who doesn’t understand their pain, and doesn’t have any plan for getting away from it.
Can’t you just feel the sunny, Reagan-esque optimism?
It’s worth emphasizing that nearly every word of these assessments is plainly wrong, and that matters, but the broader point is that Americans saw seven candidates last night who were effectively encouraging us to hide under a table.
I suppose the natural response is to highlight the underlying circumstances: we’re talking about the GOP field running to replace a Democratic president in his eighth year. Of course they’re going to spend time making the case that the status quo is unacceptable. It’s not like they have an electoral incentive to promise more of the same.
The point, however, is how they choose to make this case. Eight years ago at this time, Barack Obama was facing the same situation in reverse – a Democratic candidate running to replace a Republican president in his eighth year – but his message was rooted entirely in optimism. Obama’s entire campaign message was ultimately summarized in one, four-letter word: Hope.
It’s not because Democratic voters were satisfied about the state of the nation in 2008 – they really weren’t – but rather, it was because Obama saw value in being a positive, hopeful, confident candidate.
Eight years later, Republicans are collectively pushing a message that also can ultimately be summarized in one, four-letter word: Doom.
Politico’s Michael Grunwald wrote last week, “America is already great, and it’s getting greater. Not everything is awesome, but in general, things are even more awesome than they were a year ago. The rest of the world can only wish it had our problems.”
It’s the kind of uplifting, can-do message that would have been roundly booed in Charleston last night.