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Mark Shields: America Without Optimism

We risk our children's futures unless we recapture our national sense of confidence

Of the only man ever elected four times to the White House, historian James MacGregor Burns wrote: “If other leaders bent under the burdens of power, (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt shouldered his with zest and gaiety. He loved being president. ... The variegated facets of the presidential job called for a multitude of different roles, and Roosevelt moved from part to part with ease and confidence.” FDR’s optimism was contagious.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Americans, the most optimistic of people, have historically been attracted to optimistic leaders. Three years into Ronald Reagan’s presidency — after major economic dislocations and international tensions — the Gallup Poll found that “Americans are more optimistic in outlook for the year 1984 than at any other time in the last quarter-century.”

With the exception of those whose ancestors were here when Christopher Columbus arrived or those who were brought here, against their will, in chains, all Americans are either immigrants or the direct lineal descendants of immigrants. Much has been written about the courage required of the immigrant to leave friends and family, to strike out across the sea to a “foreign” place to live among people you had never met, to speak a language, in many cases, you had never heard. But it was also a statement of optimism — a belief that in this New Land “I could make things better if not for myself, then for those who followed me.”

Optimism has been a national characteristic. It is deep in the American DNA. But, in 2010, American optimism, the parent of confidence, which settled a continent and rescued and rebuilt the world, is all but vanishing.

When asked in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in 1995, “The United States is generally considered to be the world’s leading nation. Twenty years from now, which country do you think will be the leader?” 54 percent answered the United States, followed by Japan and the European Union (tied at 6 percent), and China at 3 percent.

When the question was most recently asked, the answers were profoundly different: China was predicted by 39 percent of American respondents to be in 20 years “the world’s leading nation,” while only 37 percent named the United States, with the European Union and Japan at 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

When asked in the same survey if they felt “confident or not confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us,” only 27 percent of Americans said they were confident about their children’s futures, while 66 percent answered they were not confident.” Add to this the two out of three who “think America is in a state of decline,” and the picture grows bleak.

Without its trademark optimism, the United States would be little more than a continental Belgium. No disrespect is intended to anyone from Brussels, but tonight there aren’t human beings all over this planet working, saving, praying and scheming on how to get to Belgium — as there always have been to get to the United States.

An America without optimism is an America lacking confidence either in herself or in her future. It is almost destined to become an America that is increasingly defensive, self-absorbed and unwilling to share her talents or treasure acting in common cause with the people of other nations.

For the country’s and the world’s well-being, Americans — who include the leaders and all us followers — must determine to recapture that native optimism and the national sense of confidence it inspires. Unless we can, we risk dooming our own children’s futures. And that indeed would be unforgivably un-American.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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