Obama the Optimist Vs. Romney the Pessimist

Depending on which candidate you believe, the economy is either bouncing back or disintegrating.

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President Barack Obama
Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event.

Does the future look brighter? Or is the American Dream circling the drain? How you answer will help determine who the next president is.

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As President Obama makes the case for his re-election and Mitt Romney argues for fresh blood, one of the key differentiators between them has become their outlook for the future. Obama, naturally, defends his record and insists things are getting better. All it takes is patience and a cooperative spirit. "We're fighting back from the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression," he said recently, while citing his familiar factoid about the economy adding 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months.

To Romney, patience and cooperation would be a disaster, because Obama's policies are strangling the economy. "Americans are starting to think our future might not be as bright as our past," Romney said in one recent speech. "That lack of faith in the future is a bridge to despair that we cannot cross."

Obama: Fighting back. Romney: Bridge to despair. If it were a sporting event on Fox, the overwrought intro would practically write itself.

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These positions are natural given the need for each candidate to defend his own policies and bash his opponent's. But Obama the optimist and Romney the pessimist each faces risks in his approach.

Obama needs to seem upbeat about America's prospects, yet he risks looking naïve and aloof if he goes overboard and insists things are better than they really are. He clearly tripped up recently with his now-infamous insistence that "the private sector is doing fine," opening himself up to biting attacks by Romney and other Republicans. Obama then clarified his remarks, making sure everybody knows that he knows that parts of the private sector aren't doing fine at all. The optimist can be a pessimist when voters demand it.

Romney needs to convince voters that Obama is a failure, without coming off as dark and dour. He's gotten some help recently from a weak jobs report and other troubling news on the economy. But this was a trickier act earlier in the year, when the news on jobs was better, and Romney's unconvincing refrain was: It's not good enough. If the economy picks up later in the year, and Romney keeps saying the sky is falling, he'll come off as Eeyore the donkey, always finding the gloom inside every ray of sunshine.

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Romney has even impressed some fellow Republicans as too grim. When Romney traveled to Iowa recently, his campaign set the stage for his visit with a Web ad highlighting out-of-work Iowans struggling to keep up. Yet the unemployment rate in Iowa is 5.1 percent, one of the lowest figures in the nation. Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad, told the Wall Street Journal that Iowa is doing better than the Romney ad insinuated, and that emphasizing positive developments might go over better than a forced, downbeat storyline.

The economy, which is Obama's running mate whether he likes it or not, will probably waver between half empty and half full right up to Election Day. Most economists expect a mild pickup in the second half of the year, barring an unforeseen disaster in Europe or someplace else. So both Obama and Romney will have good reason to keep trying to convince you that things are getting better, or worse. Without really knowing which it is for sure.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.