Selling the positive view will be a fascinating test of Patrick's political skills, because — outside of his office and his close circle of supportive advisors — most of Massachusetts long ago concluded that Patrick is a disappointment, if not a dud. Just 38 percent rate him favorably, according to the most recent Suffolk University poll, 35 percent approve of his performance as governor, and a meager 29 percent think he deserves re-election — with twice as many saying he does not.
Some of that pessimism is the understandable result of developments outside of Patrick's control: most notably, an economic collapse, which has sapped jobs and depleted state revenues. And a string of scandals that has seen three state senators and a former Speaker of the House of Representatives facing criminal charges may have nothing to do with Patrick, but they make angry voters angrier. (His old campaign promises, such as adding 1000 cops and making public service fashionable, already seem like quaint relics from some nearly forgotten age.)
There is also the inevitable letdown that comes from, in Mario Cuomo's famous formulation, campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. Few have embodied this more than Patrick — and his correlative in national politics, President Barack Obama.
Both have had difficulty accomplishing their specific agenda items, let alone their bigger, vaguer promise to change government for the better.
But neither one will get far with voters by laying blame on a recalcitrant Democratic legislature, or on a news media focused on stories of conflict and setback rather than areas of success and progress — or even on a once-in-a-century economic decline. Patrick's positivism is a reflection of the truism that re-election campaigning is a time for proudly flaunting one's achievements, not excuses.
And, as Scott Brown's election showed in January, the voters' patience has run out — they are ready to try something new. Whether Republican Charlie Baker or Democrat-turned independent Tim Cahill, Patrick's two top challengers, prove to be as convincing as Brown remains to be seen.
Obama still has time for the public mood to improve, but Patrick must put on a game face and start strutting. Like a new convert to the works of Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, Patrick must use his own positivity to create it in others.
That rosy view invites its own perils, at a time when, according to that same Suffolk poll, a majority of Bay Staters see the commonwealth heading down the wrong track.
But he needs it to work, because if his re-election hinges on the classic Reaganesque question of "Are you better off now than you were four years ago," he's in big trouble. Ditto for the updated version of the question, coined by the Sage of Wasilla: "How's that hopey-changey thing workin' out for ya?"
We're (not) a happy family
Patrick's recent burst of positivity is striking because, for all his self-confidence, which some interpret as arrogance, he has not been one for touting his record. He looked comfortable four years ago, articulating his vision for what he would do in office. But once there, he has often seemed diffident, if not indifferent, about talking up actual accomplishments.