May 23, 2013
In 2012, Americans will once again vote for the candidate that offers a more convincing and enthusiastic road map for the future. However, since the road ahead for the US looks increasingly bleak, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates will need to carefully frame their message of moderate optimism within the widespread perception that things in the US will get worse before they get better.
Since the US consolidated as the dominant power after World War II and especially since the end of the Cold War, optimism has trumped pessimism as the dominant mood in the American electorate. Because voters expect a positive message, presidential candidates campaign on platforms that promise better times ahead. Campaigns are framed to associate victories with unleashing the engine of national growth so that, in turn, citizens will be able to fulfill their own personal versions of the American dream. Although opposition candidates normally claim that the US is headed in the wrong direction—and that they are better suited to lead a change in course—the message has to be carefully construed to remain optimistic when talking about the country and associate negativism only with the incumbent president.
This year, the sorry state of the economy and the negative outlook for the future make the challenge of conveying optimism especially complicated for the two candidates, but in very different ways. President Obama needs to convince Americans that the worst is over. He will seek to frame the election as a choice between his leadership,which rescued the country from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the policies favoured by Republicans, that actually created the crisis. Although economic conditions will make it hard for Obama to convince Americans that the worst is indeed over—and higher unemployment is making the incumbent president particularly vulnerable to attacks by his opponent—his personal appeal continues to convey optimism.
In 2008, Obama embodied the message of positive change. The message was simple. If you wanted America to be better, you had to vote for Obama. Obama symbolically represents racial inclusion. His personal life story is closer to the perception of the American dream. Thus, it is easier for Obama to associate himself with an optimistic message. The White House will seek to frame the election as a choice between two leaders who will face adverse economic conditions. The Democratic message will be that, regardless of who wins, because of developments elsewhere, it will take longer for the US to recover. Arguing that difficult times ahead are inevitable, Democrats will try to convince Americans that Obama is better prepared to lead the country through hard economic times. As he is more personable than Mitt Romney, Obama will want to transform the election into a personality contest.
Mitt Romney needs the election to be a referendum on Obama. The Republican candidate’s message will be simple: are you better off now than 4 years ago? Romney wants to focus the election on the unsatisfactory economic recovery since Obama took office. To underline the hard economic times, Romney will need to use the pessimism card. His campaign will find it easy to underscore the message that the country is moving in the wrong direction. High unemployment and slow growth have fed the predominant negative economic outlook. In 2012, the candidate who campaigns on criticizing the bad economic times will have an easier challenge than one who needs to convey an optimistic message. However, a candidate who exclusively campaigns on pessimism risks alienating an electorate that wants to believe in a better future. Americans know they are going through tough times. However, they also want a leader who can show them the way out of the crisis. In addition to confirming the perception that the country is headed in the wrong direction, Romney also needs to convince Americans that he has what it takes to put the country back on the right track. If the Republican candidate fails to combine his negative assessment of the current situation with a positive message about the future, Americans will see him as a doctor doom, a prophet who correctly predicts critical years ahead but can do nothing to avoid them, and will not vote for him.
True, recent world economic developments and the inability—or unwillingness—of the ruling political elite to address America’s fiscal problem justify pessimistic views about the midterm prospects of the American economy. Unless the US comes up with a sound plan to stimulate short-term growth and come up with a serious and credible plan that will put its fiscal house in the long term, pessimistic predictions will turn out to be accurate. However, elections are not necessarily won by those who can more accurately anticipate reality. Americans will vote for someone who can credibly promise a better future for the country and can lead the nation out of crisis. Given the economic hardships, it will be difficult for Obama to convey a message of optimism, but campaigning just on pessimism will not be sufficient for Romney to win.