In a Chrysler advertisement aired during halftime of Sunday's Super Bowl, actor and director Clint Eastwood says, "I've seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of tough downturns in my life, times when we didn't understand each other. It seems we've lost our heart at times, and the fog of discord, division and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one."

To judge from the reaction he got, we haven't achieved that last stage just yet. Mr. Eastwood was pilloried the next morning by Republican political strategist and Fox News commentator Karl Rove, among others, as a tool of President Barack Obama's re-election strategy. Mr. Rove said the ad was "a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising," the idea being that the ad was payback for the government bailout of the auto industry and that Mr. Eastwood, a longtime Republican, was somehow complicit in it.

Mr. Rove, of all people should realize how ridiculous it is to think that Chrysler would spend well more than $10 million to produce and air an ad that some people might consider an oblique endorsement of the president's economic policies. After all, the man behind two super PAC juggernauts, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, knows better than almost anyone that if Chrysler wanted to pay Mr. Obama back, it could buy as many TV ads as it wants directly calling for his re-election.

The clear and literal message of the ad was not political, much less partisan. It was, as Mr. Eastwood explained later, one of optimism. The ad was a pep talk for the American people, meant to reawaken our competitive spirits and help pull us out of the deepest recession since World War II. Detroit's auto industry came back from the brink, and if it can, so can the rest of the nation. "If Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of that ad, go for it," Mr. Eastwood said on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor."

The unfortunate truth is, one major political party is daily pushing exactly the opposite message. On the campaign trail, the Republican presidential candidates are preaching the notion that America is hurdling toward fiscal and social collapse. Mitt Romney tries to frame the fall election as a choice between an Obama-led American decline and his vision for a prosperous future. Rick Santorum says the president "doesn't believe in America" and will send us the way of the British Empire. Newt Gingrich actually framed his idea for a colony on the moon as a choice between an ascendant America and an America in decline.

The problem with that is that it sets them up with interests divergent from the American people, at least in the short term. Good news for the country is bad news for them, and vice versa. That creates some amusing verbal gymnastics, as in Mr. Romney's effort to acknowledge that the nation's unexpectedly strong job creation in January was good news without undercutting his message that President Obama's economic policies are hopeless. House Speaker John Boehner and several of his fellow House Republicans held a news conference to spin the jobs figures as not that great. Mr. Gingrich actually refused initially to comment on the report.

It's a shame that more Republicans aren't taking up Mr. Eastwood on his suggestion that politicians run with the message of his ad. On a very practical level, inspiring pessimism about the economy tends to be self-reinforcing. Low consumer and business confidence leads to less spending and less hiring and could imperil the economic recovery. But Mr. Eastwood touched on something more fundamental about what it means to be an American: "We find a way through tough times, and if we can't find one, then we make one. All that matters now is what's ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together, and how do we win? ... This country can't be knocked down with one punch. We get right back up again."

American greatness is not inevitable, just as success here typically is not inherited. Both are earned, and not easily. Each generation is presented with challenges, some larger than others, and each generation is forced to choose whether to face them or shrink from them. Mr. Eastwood's ad was a reminder that we are not a nation of shrinkers. We have the power to make a better future for our children, just as our parents did for us. We will have to work for it, but that is what we as a people have always done, and we can do it again.

—Andrew A. Green