In the closing days of this congressional election campaign, Ronald Reagan has been stumping the country preaching the good news. All is well. Stay the course. Shun the quitters. Ignore the Washington doom and gloomers. "We've already accomplished a minor miracle: We've pulled America back from the edge of disaster." And so on.
He is, it appears, trying to follow the political example of Franklin D. Roosevelt in addressing the nation's state of mind.
Certainly there is merit in the approach. To lift a troubled country's spirits, to make it believe in itself is a noble and, in an economic crisis, necessary goal. FDR knew well that faith and optimism must replace pessimism and doubt before recovery can begin. His "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" theme was a brilliant slogan, delivered with brilliant timing. It worked.
But FDR was a successful leader not just because he employed effective rhetoric. He offered something more than slogans, and he made no pretense that all was well. The difference in the approach of these two presidents, both blessed with singular gifts of public persuasion, is striking.
That has never been more evident than in these frantic final political days of 1982.
Roosevelt was positive. He was prepared to act, boldly and experimentally. Try something. If it didn't work, discard it and try something else. The worst thing was to stand pat. Along with his slogans -- the banishing-of-fear metaphor was followed by Dr. New Deal and then Dr. Win the War--he applied great energy and direction in attempting to find solutions. Perhaps most important, he recognized that the country faced deep structural problems requiring strong action.
With Reagan, sunny personality aside, it is just the opposite. For all of his pleasing manner, he is essentially a passive and negative president. And a stubborn one. He is right, everyone else is wrong. It's hard to think of a president who has leveled more blame, uniformly, at all of his political predecessors, of both parties, and yet refuses to acknowledge any mistakes himself.
What problems we face are the fault of others. Let no doubts intrude about the wisdom of his course. It's turn-back-the-clock-and-let-nature-take-its-course thinking. Anyone who disagrees doesn't know what he's talking about.
Those who believe America faces highly complex questions about the nature of our economy, about our transition from an industrial to post-industrial society, about the kinds of jobs and training that will be necessary to make that move, about the growing disparity between rich and poor and the questions they raise about social equity and the social fabric, about our relationship with an increasingly more intricate and fragile world economy -- all are lumped as crepe hangers and doom and gloomers.
To all of these and other questions, this president has a uniform response. He dismisses them out of hand. It is not so much the politics of hope he practices. He practices the politics of Tinker Bell. Clap your hands and wish.
The sad thing is that, on this Election Day, there really is no other alternative nationally. The hope is that the president can be persuaded, by the kinds of votes recorded Tuesday, that people want something more than a damn-the-torpedoes-and-full-speed-ahead approach from him. Whether that will happen no one can say, but the belief here is that many Americans want it to happen.
Among many impressions gained after weeks of travel throughout the country, two are pertinent to the way people feel about the president's "here's the good news and let's stand pat" message.
People want to believe him. They want nothing more than to hear good news. In Lowell, Mass., the last place I visited, a Reagan backer expressed a common thought.
"You know one of the things it's going to take to get this economy out of the doldrums?" said Bill Taupier, Lowell's former city manager, and now in private business. "You. The United States of America journalists. If they continue to give bad news, and I'm not saying they should slant the news, the little guy's going to keep getting scared.
"If the consumer thinks we're going to go down, we're going to go down. That has a whole psychological grip on the country. If the consumer doesn't buy those cars, those houses, those big-ticket items, we're in for a long, long steady road down.
"Here's what I mean about the press. We had a story in Lowell the other day: that Lowell had the lowest unemployment in the state. It was the best story I've read in a long, long time, and it was played all over page one. It's when the press recognizes the good news story as being as important as the bad news story and plays it on page one that we'll begin to start thinking differently about where we are," he said.
But people also know that the problems are more complex and that they aren't hearing from the president about how to deal with them. They are, like Taupier, uncertain about the future.
"We're at a crossroads," Taupier said, "and I don't know which way we're going to go. Here's what scares me. The last time the stock market was as high as it is now was before the big recession of 1974-75.
"Personally, I think the market's going to go up, but I have those doubts. So I'm hedging my bets that it's going to go down. I listen to all these guys who consider themselves experts, and they don't know either. And that scares me."
Taupier and millions of others are searching for answers. They want to hear some realistic analysis of what the country faces. However they feel about the president personally, they expect something better than slogans from him.