In what still remains a determinedly optimistic country, no serious presidential candidate would proffer an entirely negative view. Bleak assessments of the American present invariably come with morale-boosting promises about the American future. Clinton believed in a place called Hope, while Obama vouched for its audacity. From the troughs of the valley, Reagan promised a return to the shining city on a hill.
This kind of rhetoric serves a purpose. Elections, after all, are a diagnostic exercise, where problems are identified and remedies proposed. Had it not been for Eisenhower’s fears about the Soviet threat, he might not have pushed so hard for what turned out to be the greatest landmark of his presidency: an interstate highway system.
Problems have arisen, however, when the prognosis has been too grave, at which point a candidate’s exaggerated sense of US decline can lead to exaggerated policy responses in office. Kennedy’s fears about being bested by the Soviets led in part to the disaster of the Bay of Pigs within months of him taking office. He became a victim of the Cold War machismo that only a short time before had made him look so muscular against Nixon. Pessimism can also nurture isolationism, and a reluctance to project American power abroad.