No, the Other Guy Is the Mindless Declinist

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President Obama called for a new "American century" -- then repeated the phrase seven more times -- in his commencement address to graduates of the Air Force Academy Wednesday. Obama's vision of unmatched American military and economic power came after a subtle dig at Mitt Romney: "Let's start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned, that America is in decline. We've heard that talk before." This is correct: We have heard all of this talk before, from Mitt Romney. Just six months ago, Romney said, "Obama thinks America's in decline. It is if he's president. It's not if I'm president. This is going to be the American century." Romney and Obama have been fighting over who's the forward-looking American optimist and who's the un-American defeatist for months.

Romney titled his October 7, 2011 foreign policy speech "An American Century: A Strategy to Secure America’s Enduring Interests and Ideals." In his address, Romney said, "This century must be an American century. In an American century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world." But a couple days later, on October 11, Obama reclaimed the rights to the "American century." In a speech about his jobs plan in Pittsburgh, Obama said, "If we want to compete and win in this global economy -- if we want this century to be another American Century -- we can’t just go back to an economic model that's based on how much we can borrow, how much debt we can rack up, and how much we can consume."

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At a December 15 debate, Romney complained of Obama's declinism, predicting an "American century":

In his own widely-broadcast television appearance in January, the State of the Union address, Obama then insisted, No, no, no, Romney's the declinist: "America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about."

Romney set up an explicit contrast between his vision of future greatness and Obama's supposed view that greatness is in the past in his New Hampshire primary victory speech in January: 

"[Obama] believes America's role as leader in the world is a thing of the past.  I believe a strong America must – and will – lead the future... He doesn't see the need for overwhelming American military superiority.  I will insist on a military so powerful no one would think of challenging it...

If you want to make this election about restoring American greatness, then I hope you will join us."

At his Florida primary victory rally in January, Romney repeated the "thing of the past" line, adding, "We still believe in the America that is a land of opportunity and a beacon of freedom." At that point, Obama's began working harder to win "American century" for himself. In February, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz introduced Obama by saying, "We are Democrats because we believe that the 21st century can be a second American century." In March, Obama gave another jobs speech, concluding, "We will make this century another American century." In April, aping Romney's incessant repeating of the word "believe," the president told an Ohio crowd, "You believe in our future. You believe in this country. And if we work together in common purpose, I guarantee you we will make this an American Century just like the 20th century was the American Century." 

In May, the Obama campaign released an ad about how far the country has come since the financial crisis. Just look at the folks pictured (screenshot at left) when the narrator says, "Some said our best days were behind us."

And so on. Obama has talked about an "American century" 16 times in public since 2011, according to transcripts released by the White House, though he had never said the words "American century" so many times in one speech before Wednesday. The graduating class heard this:

I firmly believe that if we rise to this moment in history, if we meet our responsibilities, then—just like the 20th century—the 21st will be another great American Century...

I see an American Century because we have the resilience to make it through these tough economic times...

I see an American Century because you are part of the finest, most capable military the world has ever known..

I see an American Century because we have the strongest alliances of any nation...

I see an American Century because no other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs, and no other nation can play the role that we play in global affairs...

I see an American Century because more and more people are reaching toward the freedoms and values we share...

I see an American Century because of the character of our country—the spirit that has always made us exceptional...

The ball's in your court, Romney. Can you say "American century" nine times in a speech? A dozen times? What about a speech made up entirely of the words "believe," "American," "century"? ("I believe in an American Century. Because the belief in an American Century is what will make next century American.") You're letting Obama run away with this one.

Of course, neither Romney nor Obama made up the idea. Here's Bill Clinton in 1999:

"Let us lift our eyes as one nation, and from the mountaintop of this American century look ahead to the next one."

And here's Bob Dole in 1998:

"You are the ones who will make the 21st century the next American century." 

And George H.W. Bush in 1991:

"This is not merely a call for new government initiatives, it is a call for new initiative in government, in our communities, and from every American to prepare for the next American century."

And, just for fun, a not-quite-prescient Gerald Ford in 1975

"I ask you to share my vision of a third American century in which the individual, not the government, makes personal choices. I am confident that the American spirit that brought us to our 200th birthday has produced men and women who are determined to prevail over the agencies and bureaus of government that would reduce human beings to computerized abstractions."

Oh, President Ford! The private sector has proven far more capable at reducing human beings to abstractions than any government bureaucrat. Those aspiring to run the government, however, just recycle old ones.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.