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Coming this November: The Pessimist vs. the Cynical Pessimist

COMMENTARY This week, decline is on my brain.
Ted Rall
by Ted Rall


 This week, decline is on my brain. Specifically, the decline of America.

"There's not a country on Earth that wouldn't gladly trade places with the United States of America," President Obama said, denying Republican assertions that the country is in decline. 

However, the country believes America is in decline. Polls show that Americans believe that the next generation will live worse than we do. Pessimism about the future is reflected in a 2011 survey in which 57% of the public identify the United States as the world's most powerful nation, but just 19% believe that will still be true 20 years from now.

On top of this comes a new report that showed the life expectancy for whites without a high-school degree fell precipitously between 1990 and 2007. "The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London, told The New York Times. Bear in mind, the study includes the Clinton boom of the 1990s. And it doesn't include the period after 2007, when the global fiscal crisis set off the current economic crisis.

Even the two major presidential candidates seem to believe that the United States doesn't have much of a future.


During his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, President Obama was asked what his big idea was for his next term. Interviewer Steve Kroft mentioned the Marshall Plan and sending a man to the moon as examples of big ideas.

Obama ducked.

"I think there's no bigger purpose right now than making sure that if people work hard in this country, they can get ahead," replied Obama. "That's the central American idea. That's how we sent a man to the moon. Because there was an economy that worked for everybody and that allowed us to do that."

So all the president has to offer is a vague desire to restore the American Dream? Sorry, but getting back something we used to take for granted is the opposite of a big idea.

Obama's pessimism is dwarfed by that of Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney.

Romney's 2011 tax return revealed that not only did he bet against the value of the American dollar—a staggeringly unpatriotic move for a presidential candidate—he received a quarter of his income from investments in other countries. Romney, putting his money where his mouth isn't, is literally betting his millions that the U.S. economy will head south.

Whether better, worse, or the same as today, the United States has a future. Yet, we’re lacking that person or movement to credibly articulate a positive vision of the country, but also moves us forward (you know, like a certain campaign slogan).

This presidential campaign is shaping up as a race between a pessimist and a cynical pessimist, and in such a contest the mere pessimist is likely to win. But it isn't good for us in the long run. Obama has the edge in the polls, partly because he presents a less somber vision despite his lack of big ideas. (It helps that Romney is a terrible politician.)

"This is America. We still have the best workers in the world and the best entrepreneurs in the world. We've got the best scientists and the best researchers. We've got the best colleges and the best universities," said the president in his "not in decline" remarks. 

Well, the United States is rich. Staggeringly so. The problem is that our wealth has become so unevenly distributed that there is no longer enough consumer demand to support the population. It's like a marriage in which both spouses can make it work—if they change their attitudes. If we began focusing on the problems of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, as well as rising income and wealth inequality—i.e., economic injustice—and then fix them—we'll be OK. The country doesn't need to be in decline.  

Some elites, such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and mega-investor Warren Buffett, understand the need to redistribute wealth. They're one side of a split in the ruling classes. Unfortunately, for the system and for many Americans, they're losing the argument to the greedy classes that include Romney.

Ted Rall is a columnist, cartoonist, author and independent war journalist. He is the winner of numerous awards and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His new book is The Book of Obama: How We Got From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.