As in any U.S. national election without an incumbent president, the candidates are painting a not very pretty picture: The country is “going to hell,” bluntly asserts the Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
The Democratic challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, isn’t much kinder and even Hillary Clinton is starting to focus more on challenges than successes.
To many voters the message is: The economy is terrible, the social fabric is disintegrating and America is losing respect around the world.
Certainly, problems abound. The recovery from the 2008-09 recession has been uneven and is characterized by widening income inequality; wages for the average working family have stagnated for decades; racial tensions in some places have worsened, suicide rates are up, terrorism is on the rise, Russia and China are threatening and the political system is dysfunctional.
But that is hardly the whole or even the dominant story. Politics aside, there is more good news than bad.
For all the inequities, no Western economy has recovered from the recession as well as the U.S. The unemployment rate has been cut in half, with 14 million jobs added over the past six years.
Most other indices are encouraging: Consumer confidence has risen and the housing market has basically recovered. Budget deficits have plummeted, there’s less reliance on foreign oil than any time in almost three decades, and the health care overhaul has had more positive consequences than negative ones.
Still, wages are only starting to creep up. While the federal government is frozen, more than one-third of states have boosted their minimum wage. Wages should be a focus of the presidential campaign, and vows such as breaking up the banks or slapping big tariffs on Chinese imports are distractions.
There is progress on the cultural and social fronts, too. Bitter divides remain, but Americans have become more tolerant. Although some politicians still pander to racial prejudices, young people are more open.
There are encouraging developments on issues emphasized by conservatives. There are only about half as many abortions as 30 years ago. Teenage pregnancies have plummeted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that the birthrate among American teenagers has fallen to a historic low. This continues a quarter-century of improvement; especially important to experts is that the sharpest drops have been among Hispanic and black teenagers.
And there is good news on crime. Both the murder rate and overall violent crime rate have been cut almost in half since the 1980s. There’s bipartisan consensus to try to do something about the outrageously high incarceration levels, particularly for blacks. There is a chance that even this do-nothing Congress might pass measures.
The world is a dangerous place, but it’s not as threatening to the U.S. as it was 10 years ago when two wars raged. There is slow progress in the fight against the Islamic state, though future terrorist acts are inevitable and the danger will remain for years.
Critics claim that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has consistently outmaneuvered President Barack Obama. Yet Russia is more isolated today and subject to economic sanctions. And Putin’s Syrian involvement could become a quagmire. China is more important and has been more aggressive in Asia, but its internal political and economic problems dwarf those of the U.S.
To be sure, many of the problems articulated in the campaign are real. The next president faces a host of economic, national security and social challenges.
But pessimists still should answer two questions: If the goal is to make America great again, what era should we aspire to return to? And is there any country whose hand you would rather have?