Which is to say, nearly the entire case for President Barack Obama's second term is based on not what has happened but what could, would or might under different circumstances. Things, as you've surely heard from one official after the next, would have been a whole lot worse without the president's guidance.
When the Obama campaign intimates that Mitt Romney would have been less decisive to knock off Osama bin Laden -- "Which path would Romney have taken?" a campaign video pretends to ponder -- we aren't seeing anything new. This is another Obama hypothetical. Libyan intervention without congressional approval? We averted a future atrocity. The passage of Obamacare? We avoided higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancy. The president has, by his own account, prevented countless disasters and tackled an incalculable number of problems that don't exist yet.
Without a hypothetical, after all, there is no room for the false choice. Do you want an apocalypse or Cash for Clunkers?
Then there is economic policy. On this, we have Obama's shiny new 17-minute campaign documentary, "The Road We've Traveled," masterpiece of counterfactual scaremongering -- brought to us by Academy Award winners Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") and Tom Hanks ("Bachelor Party").
The film's plot revolves around a brave soul -- thrust into the unequaled historical turmoil (well, a bad recession) -- who, with no thought to his own well-being, sends hundreds of billions of your dollars to politically favored institutions on the say-so of an economic theory. Without this very specific policy, deployed by this very president, the United States would have surely crumbled. (I know this because in "The Road We've Traveled," Hanks uses a grave tone to communicate this to me.)
If he's not acting, then Hanks is placing an immense amount of faith into the state. Put it this way: When the administration attached specifics to one of its counterfactual arguments -- the stimulus -- it made an embarrassing prediction about job gains with/without the policy. The administration didn't come close when it came to the number, yet the president said, "Here are some things I know for certain: In the absence of the stimulus, I think our recession would be much worse."
Not "might" or "may" but rather the president, like the fundamentalists and ideologues he pretends can only exist among his fanatical detractors, knows this for certain. Obama even stated around this time that there was "no disagreement" on the matter of his Keynesian stimulus -- even though 200 economists took to the pages of The New York Times in an ad to say otherwise, and thousands of others disagreed.
Obama may be Nostradamus, but counterfactual arguments, fortunately, can be deployed both ways and by anyone. For instance: Doing nothing would have been more effective than doing something stupid. Without the stimulus, we'd be out of this mess already. Passing free market-oriented reforms would have allowed this recovery to resemble the "Reagan recovery" of the '80s. And so on.
As a political matter, "Things could have been worse, you know" is a far cry from "Hope." That's probably why the Obama campaign has settled on the slogan "Forward." That's not to say that the counterfactual tactic is unusual in politics -- we are, after all, engaging in some serious guesswork -- but rarely is the justification for re-election based almost entirely on a gigantic hypothetical. When there is no tangible accomplishment to grab, I guess you're left with few alternatives.