For six months, Americans assumed the testimony of General David Petraeus about the effectiveness of the US troop “surge” in Iraq would be a cathartic moment – either showing that new tactics for policing an insurgency were possible, or setting the stage for a painful retreat. It surprised most Americans this week when neither happened. It appears now that there will be no bold change of direction in Iraq. Barring the unforeseen, Iraq policy will continue as it has been going, with piecemeal successes here and there.

There is, however, a shift in American political sentiment and Iraq may be at the root of it. For almost a century – roughly since Franklin Delano Roosevelt called New York governor Al Smith “the happy warrior” when nominating him for the presidency at the 1924 Democratic convention – optimism has been the semi-official mood of presidential candidates. This has been as true in bad times as in good. Even in April 1968, weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination and at the very trough of the Vietnam war, Hubert Humphrey, the vice-president, announced his candidacy by saying: “Here we are …the way politics ought to be in America, the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, the politics of joy.”

The people shooting for the highest office this time, whether they approve of the war in Iraq or not, are speaking in tones of gloom unprecedented in a presidential campaign. “The course we’re on,” said Illinois senator Barack Obama, an Iraq sceptic, on the Today show this week, “is unsustainable.” At his first campaign appearance in Iowa, the Republican Fred Thompson, a surge supporter, said: “If we show weakness and division, we will pay a heavy price for it in the future.”

That the sunniest candidate always wins is a dogma that has united campaign consultants of both parties: the two most successful presidents of the last century – FDR and Reagan – are also remembered as the most optimistic. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” said Roosevelt in 1933. “America’s best days, and democracy’s best days, lie ahead,” said Reagan in 1984. From Reagan’s time until a few months ago, the use of forward-looking rhetoric has been formulaic. Bill Clinton, with his “bridge to the 21st century”, excelled at it. In 2004, the journalist Michael Kinsley noted with amazement that the Bush campaign was running an anti-Kerry advert entitled “Pessimism” and John Kerry was countering it with one about his campaign called “Optimists”.

This year, the only candidate who has sought consistently to accentuate the positive is Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts. At a June debate in New Hampshire, Mr Romney said (drifting out of a discussion on abortion): “America is a land of opportunity. And our future is going to be far brighter than our past.” Then (drifting out of a discussion on immigration): “We are the party of the future, and we have to stop worrying about the problems and thinking we can’t deal with those. We have to focus on the future and our opportunity to make America a great place for our kids and grandkids.”

Once optimism becomes the dominant mood of oratory and policymaking, it is hard to shake. In a democratic society, optimism tends to be unfalsifiable. Who, after all, would doubt capabilities that the president has vouched for? No one but a bunch of naysayers. Pessimists are derided as people who underestimate either (depending on which president is trying to bully them) the ingenuity of the American businessman, the generosity of the American taxpayer or the valour of the American military. Pessimism carries with it a whiff of deficient patriotism.

In the case of Roosevelt and Reagan, optimism is the quality that their supporters focused on after the fact to recast a divisive partisan hero as a unifying national one. Their former opponents collude in this. Anti-Roosevelt Republicans prefer to think that Roosevelt’s great achievement in the face of the Depression was his happy talk, not his policies. (This was the view of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said FDR had a “second-class intellect but a first-class temperament”.) Anti-Reagan Democrats prefer to believe that Reagan won because he bamboozled people with pie-in-the-sky promises, not because their own party had run out of ideas.

While voters have always seemed to like optimism, what they really like is something else. What they like is good judgment. Good judgment is looking at a situation where opportunities and risks exist and avoiding the risks. Bad judgment is looking at the same situation and ignoring the risks. Optimism can be the outward manifestation of either, but this is less obvious when opportunities are many and risks are few.

Optimism was bound to be revealed eventually as a faulty index of presidential mettle. But the Iraq war accelerated the process. Whatever one may think of the war, it is, of all policy initiatives in recent decades, the one that most bears the mark of presidential optimism. One could even say cock-eyed optimism, given the low amount of planning and manpower that were deemed necessary for its success.

In his 1991 masterwork The True and Only Heaven, the late historian Christopher Lasch drew a contrast between optimism and what he called hope. “Progressive optimism rests,” Lasch wrote, “on a denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom, and it cannot survive for very long in a world in which an awareness of those limits has become inescapable. The disposition properly described as hope, trust, or wonder, on the other hand … asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits. It cannot be defeated by adversity. In the troubled times to come, we will need it even more than we needed it in the past.”

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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