- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

Americans are becoming increasingly pessimistic about both domestic and international matters; this, despite the many reasons we should feel good about U.S. accomplishments.

By nature, we’re an optimistic people — an observation underscored by the monthly consumer confidence surveys showing a majority still believes things will be better in the near future. But that optimism has been eroded by events in Iraq; a perception the economy remains troubled (reinforced by soaring gasoline prices); and pessimism on Wall Street that has reduced the value of workers’ pension plans.

A large majority of Americans now believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, contributing to President Bush’s falling poll numbers. But John Kerry’s poll numbers have barely budged. Americans are unhappy with how things are going on Mr. Bush’s watch, but don’t necessarily embrace his opponent.

It’s clear Americans need reasons they should feel more optimistic about where we are right now. Here are a few:

• Iraq: We have hit some undeniably rough spots trying to turn Iraq into a democracy. We paid a terrible price in April when an unanticipated, savage insurgency inflicted major casualties on our troops. Then came the prisoner abuse scandal and the killing of the Iraqi governing council’s president.

But these events will not alter what we have achieved there or the course the Iraqis are now on. A brutal, terrorist regime has been toppled. Iraqis are just weeks away from running their own government. U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will likely name the leaders of the new interim government in two weeks.

Despite decline in public satisfaction over Iraq, more than half of Americans surveyed favor keeping U.S. troops there “until a stable government is established,” a Pew poll found last week.

When the history of Iraq’s reformation is written years from now, it will surely note that, in the beginning, we focused only on the bad in Iraq and on none of the good: like the U.S. military repairing and opening 1,000 public schools, the blossoming of freedom of expression after decades of oppressive rule, and the renewed hope of self-government.

• The economy: A million jobs have been created since last August; 4 percent annual economic growth; a welcome surge in manufacturing orders; record-breaking, $1 trillion-a-year in export sales of U.S. goods and services abroad; rising global growth in Europe and Asia; growing tax revenues at state and federal levels that are shrinking budget deficits. All signs of a strong recovery that is “all systems go.”

Another reason for optimism: Americans express “more satisfaction with the lifestyles they can afford than has been the case” in the past, according to a Pew poll.

When asked if they earn enough to pay for the kind of life they wanted, 51 percent said yes. That’s higher than previous surveys over the past 10 years (when roughly 41 percent to 44 percent expressed satisfaction with what they earned).

As for the volatility we have been seeing on Wall Street, I see that passing as the Fed acts on its plan to raise interest rates, events stabilize — politically in Iraq and economically in the United States — and global economies continue rebounding. The really good news is that more than half of all Americans are investors and thus owners of America’s growing economy.

So this is no time to be pessimistic.

In World War II, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower made it clear to his subordinates he did not want anyone on his staff who doubted the outcome of the war. Ike was utterly convinced the United States would prevail over a fierce and savage enemy. And he wanted everyone who worked for him to believe that, too.

In the darkest days of the 1981-82 recession, President Reagan told a dispirited nation “our best days lie ahead of us” and America would bounce back as it always had before. Things did not look so good for Mr. Reagan in May 1984 when a Gallup Poll showed him in a dead heat with Walter Mondale, 49-49 percent. But his optimism was infectious, and he helped the country feel better. We all know what happened next.

With all the bad news we have had lately, maybe it’s time for George W. Bush to give a little speech about optimism. It couldn’t come at a more critical time, for him or our nation.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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