Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens as he is introduced at a campaign fundraising event at a home in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

“We stand near the threshold of profound economic misery,” said Romney. “Four more years on the same political path could prove disastrous.”

At another point in the speech, Romney said: “Today we are united not only by our faith in America. We are united also by our concern for America.”

On foreign policy, Romney cited a “near-nuclear unstable Pakistan... [and] a delusional North Korea” as evidence that “the world is not becoming safer.”

Romney’s speech came less than an hour before President Obama was set to address an American Legion conference in Minnesota where he offered some positive talk about overcoming the country’s economic challenges.

“In hard times, Americans don’t quit,” Obama said. “We don’t give up. We summon that spirit that says, when we come together, when we choose to move forward together, as one people, there’s absolutely nothing we can’t achieve.”

Negative talk about the current occupant of the White House is nothing new from the Republican field and is a de rigueur strategic component of any campaign — by either party — against a sitting incumbent.

But, Romney’s focus on just how bad things are at the moment is a major change from the sunny optimist of the 2008 campaign — everything Romney saw during that campaign was either “amazing” or “the best” — and a strategic gamble that voters want someone who shares their dim view of where things stand at the moment in America

There’s no debate that the American public is in a historically bad mood.

In a new Associated Press-gfK poll, three quarters of respondents said the country was off on the wrong track. A Washington Post/Pew poll showed nearly eight in ten respondents dissatisfied with things in the country. Recent Gallup numbers have shown President Obama and Congress at (or close to) record low job approval ratings.

The recent fight in Washington over raising the debt ceiling — and the resultant stock market gyrations — seem to have crystallized the sense for many people that things are bad and politicians have little ability to make them better.

Recent election results reflect that deep dissatisfaction with both sides. Independents, the swing voters coveted by both parties, have lurched wildly between the two. In the 2006 midterms, Democrats won independents by 18 points; four years later they went for Republicans by 19 points.

What that 37- point swing tells us is that, as we have written before, voters are mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore.

Given that attitude among the public, it’s not surprising that politicians are doing everything they can to empathize with the frustration that people are feeling.

That’s particularly relevant in the race to come since one of the main critiques of President Obama — primarily from Republicans but also whispered in some Democratic circles — is that he struggles to relate to the fears that grip average people about the uncertain economic future.

But, there is also political danger in appearing too down on the country. While people want someone able to understand and channel their frustrations and anger, they also want to believe that things can get better and that the person they are voting for is the one to lead the country to a brighter tomorrow.

The best (or worst) example of how malaise-as-strategy can backfire is President Jimmy Carter who delivered a famous/infamous speech in the summer of 1979 in which he acknowledged a “crisis of confidence” in America.

Ronald Reagan seized on that malaise message — worth noting that the word “malaise” never appeared in Carter’s speech — and cast himself as an optimist who believed the best times were still ahead for the country.

The trick then for Romney is to convince people he understands how hard it is out there for them and then pivot to a message that he is the person who can turn things around.

And he was clearly trying to do both things in his speech today. “I believe in America,” Romney said. “We have a deep and abiding faith in the goodness and the greatness of America.”

Making only the first half of the argument could relegate Romney (or any other Republican who goes down that rhetorical road) to being viewed as a negative nelly — and voters don’t typically respond all that well to those sorts of people.

Acknowledging the dismal mindset in the country and then using it as a pivot for why a change is necessary, on the other hand, is potentially powerful.

Romney and his team are hoping to execute on the latter strategy.


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