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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Bret Stephens

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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Readers of Commentary surely need few reminders that pessimism about America’s future is as old as the republic. “We shall soon see the country rushing into the extremes of confusion and violence,” wrote historian and playwright Mercy Otis Warren—in 1788. Forecasts of decline and fall have been a recurring staple of our political discourse ever since. They have always been wrong. They are wrong again today.

What is it about the present moment that inspires so much gloom? Previous generations of Americans have endured deeper recessions, waged costlier wars, suffered worse social maladies, incurred larger debts (at least as a percentage of GDP), faced tougher foreign competitors, and made graver policy mistakes. And elected worse presidents: nothing Barack Obama has done in his 33 months in office quite matches the malfeasance of James Buchanan or the obtuseness of Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter. And like those presidents, Obama looks increasingly like a one-termer—assuming, that is, that he has a competent opponent next fall.

Americans might also take comfort in the fact that Obama’s record as president so far amounts to a remarkable mix of defeats, retreats, and Pyrrhic victories. His bid to impose a cap-and-trade carbon-emissions scheme went nowhere, as did his union-friendly card-check legislation, as did the public-option piece of his health-care plan. He abandoned his efforts to close Guantánamo and try terrorists in civilian court. He gave up on trying to woo Iran and bully Israel. He agreed to an extension of his predecessor’s tax cuts. He made stimulus a dirty word. ObamaCare is the most unpopular legislation in memory and may soon be overturned by the Supreme Court. He led Congressional Democrats to a historic midterm defeat.

None of this has done more than contain the damage Obama’s presidency might otherwise have wrought. But it tells us important things about America. It turns out that the cult-of-personality style of politics that served Obama well as a candidate quickly lost its charm once he was in office. It turns out that the pride we felt in electing a black president didn’t translate into guilt when it came to criticizing his policies. It turns out that a political moment that supposedly heralded the death of conservatism was nothing of the sort. It turns out that Americans have an innate suspicion of loose monetary policy, intrusive government regulation, bullying unions, socialized medicine, and runaway deficit spending.

In short, America’s political culture remains in excellent health, free and frank and largely unencumbered by the shibboleths and taboos that paralyze Europe and Japan. And a healthy political culture is what, after the inevitable fits and starts, will ensure that we return to a growth economy, contain the entitlement state, loosen the death grip of public-sector unions, fund a military adequate for our strategic purposes, assimilate immigrants, and so on.

Now, if we can just bomb Iran’s nuclear sites….

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Bret Stephens is deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal and the paper’s columnist on foreign affairs.



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