Dispatch February 2009

Truth over Happiness

First and foremost, Americans want honesty from the Oval Office

Ok, so maybe Americans do like happy talk. That, anyway, is what the pundits and the pols (including a former president) have been telling President Obama ever since his relatively somber inaugural address—lighten up, fella, let’s hear more of that ‘yes we can’ talk!

As widely noted, President Obama responded to these concerns, including with some “made-for-applause” lines in his address to Congress. “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” he assured his listeners. “…We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal.” Etc.

Instant polling appeared to confirm the predicted positive response. The CBS News/Knowledge Networks poll, for a fast example, found that, among its sample of speech watchers (38 percent Democrats, 26 percent Republicans and 36 percent independents) an overwhelming 80 percent said they approved of the president’s plan for dealing with the economic crisis. Prior to the speech, 63 percent approved.

Still, unwilling to abandon the tough-minded, fact-based approach that characterized the opening weeks of his presidency, Obama administered an even larger dose of downers: “None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy.” Etc.

“He attempted to be the grown-up in the room, willing to accept responsibility and prodding others to do the same,” observed the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein. But do Americans really want to be governed by a grown-up—especially one who goes so far as to admit that “My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue.”?

Remember how the press and the public beat up on Jimmy Carter when he worried about a “crisis of confidence” infecting the nation? Didn’t the country breathe a collective sigh of relief when Ronald Reagan exuded optimism from the bully pulpit? Since then, such boosterism seems almost a matter of course. As the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan put it, “What was a necessary pep-talk in the 1980s from Reagan became calcified into a dogma that verges on national self-idolatry.”

The record in fact shows that how Americans react to tough talk depends crucially on how they judge the person administering the lecture. Back in July 1979, it was hard to think kindly of Carter while sweating in a block-circling line hoping to buy at least a few gallons of record-priced gasoline before your tank went dry. But cycle back a few presidents to 1961 and you will hear another president issuing far sterner injunctions to near unanimous public applause.

John F. Kennedy warned Americans at the outset of his administration that the right question for you as a citizen is not what the country can do for you but instead what you can “do for your country.” Yet a review of press and public reaction at the time shows that this stern call for sacrifice was met with near universal praise, and the young president’s Gallup poll ratings climbed into the 80-percent range in ensuing months. (And even though, long before Reagan, he invoked the upbeat vision of America “as a city upon a hill,” Kennedy also had the temerity, in a March 1962 press conference, to observe that “life is unfair,” giving as an example the fact that that some men are wounded or killed in war while others get to serve out their time at a pleasant station in San Francisco.

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