Salena Zito

WEST NEWTON, Pa. — Bill "Smokey" Baird is tinkering with a customer's bike in his shop along the Great American Passage trail connecting Homestead with Washington, D.C.

A family of seven walks in to rent bikes for the day. The owner of West Newton Bicycle Shop, and of an auto-body shop across the road, sends them on their way with a variety of bikes.

"People come from all over the world to this little shop," he says, his hands and face oil-smudged from working on cars and bikes. "I've had customers from New Zealand, South Africa ... heck, the former governor of Colorado is a regular customer, comes out every year and tells me, 'You have no idea what a great thing you have going here.'

"We found a way to survive in this economy because of a couple of things -- we treat people the way we want to be treated, that's the way we were brought up. And people are afraid to spend money, afraid to go on vacations. They can come here, rent a bike for $5 an hour, or have their old bikes tuned up, or buy a new or used bike."

Smokey is an example of American exceptionalism: a small businessman who has owned two shops -- one for seven years, the other for 22 years -- and found a way to thrive despite economic challenges.

His bike shop is nothing fancy but its service is remarkable; the young people working there go out of their way to make sure you come back, again and again.

Yet no one running a business is "doing just fine," as President Obama suggested in an offhand comment last week about the private sector. He retracted that pretty darn quickly. Most experts agree it wasn't a gaffe; it is how he sees the world.

He misses what makes guys like Smokey exceptional: their contributions to communities, the jobs they create, the other businesses that grow because of their presence, the opportunities they provide for people to vacation without breaking the bank.

Guys like Smokey will help decide whether to change horses in midstream in a November election that is all about Barack Obama, a referendum on whether Americans will double down on his promises and policies or opt for change.

When Obama spoke of an America that wasn't blue or red in 2008, he touched upon a strand of American exceptionalism that extols nonpartisanship, pragmatic problem-solving and a presidency that serves all Americans.

However, through his bowing to foreign despots, his partisanship, his early overseas "apology tour" on which he refused to defend America's past, Obama undermined himself as a champion of the idea that America is special.

He further opened himself to attack by abandoning his principles of "hope and change" for class-based attacks, promises of taxpayer-funded handouts to cronies and opportunistic appeals to progressive social values.

Presidential elections are about incumbents and whether voters are willing to fire them. Once they reach that conclusion, they explore the alternatives.

History dictates that incumbents win, said Dane Strother, a Washington-based strategist for Democrats.

"All elections are about the incumbent and the future," he said, adding that this time, the choice is about who can best fix the economy.

Right now, voters haven't decided to fire Obama -- but they are wavering.

Obama needs to articulate that the country will be in better shape four years from now under him, not under Republican Mitt Romney.

Republican strategist Bruce Haynes is not sure the president can deliver that message: "(His) campaign seems stuck ... unable to take this race to a different place than the race they ran in 2008. That's dangerous. Hope is a hopelessly aspirational thing for people struggling to buy groceries and gas, and he's now on the wrong side of the people who want to see change."

Romney will not beat Obama by presenting detailed policies that can be picked apart before the election. He will win by disqualifying the incumbent and presenting popular principles that would guide his administration.

There may be no better theme for Romney than his message that "America is exceptional," to extol its virtues rather rather than revel in its defects, to cherish our belief in liberty, equality, constitutionalism -- and the well-being of folks like Smokey.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.