Such widespread pessimism is perhaps understandable, but can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. America needs more optimistic leadership to prevent "we're doomed" from becoming the fixed public attitude toward the future.
It is painfully ironic that we have plummeted to these depths of despair during the presidency of a man elected on an upbeat campaign promise of "hope and change." By electing Barack Obama, the first African-American president, we made some much-needed peace with our often bitter racial past, but have neither transcended the punishing recent past of terrorist attacks, two wars, and economic collapse, nor moved beyond ever more bitter partisanship and uncompromising ideological warfare.
Instead, as the poll numbers prove, things have gotten worse, not better. There is plenty of blame to go around, but Obama's political legacy is indisputably not one of optimism, but rather its polar opposite.
Prior presidents from both parties prove that the right kind of leader can restore and revitalize the American spirit in even the most perilous of times. Their distinctive and diverse examples provide a helpful guide to what we should be seeking in 2016 presidential candidates.
Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, entered office as America literally came apart over slavery. Widely disrespected and doubted at first, through remarkable character, courage, compassion, creativity, and cunning, all reinforced by his godlike rhetorical gifts, not only restored the riven nation, but midwifed a "new birth of freedom."
Progressive, reforming Republican Theodore Roosevelt had boundless energy and a relentlessly upbeat outlook. He boldly and brilliantly walked a political tightrope between leveling radicals on the left and plutocratic conservative reactionaries on the right. TR made America feel good about itself and readied it for an even greater future by confidently navigating a prudent middle course between political extremes each of which threatened the American Dream in its own way.
Although partially paralyzed by polio, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt's positive personality reassured a dangerously afraid America at the darkest hour of the Great Depression. His New Deal's success is still vigorously debated, but his extraordinary leadership qualities are not. Along with his incredibly inspiring British ally, Winston Churchill, FDR's boundless, jaunty confidence and considerable political skill led the country to victory in World War II and prepared it for an era of prosperity and global leadership in the struggle against atheistic and materialistic communism.
Democrat John F. Kennedy's idealistic eloquence, youthful energy, glamorous style, quick wit, and obvious joie de vivre electrified a new generation of Americans "born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, [and] proud of our ancient heritage" into asking not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. He summoned the country to a New Frontier that extended from “the huts and villages across the globe” all the way to the moon. People are positively responding to Kennedy's call to public service still.
After Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam, Richard Nixon's Watergate, and Jimmy Carter's crisis of confidence, the sunny California Republican Ronald Reagan reminded America that it was founded as and should always be a shining city on a hill. Regardless of whether one agreed with his policies, which ultimately proved quite successful, none can dispute his success in ushering in "morning again in America" as far as our national attitude, confidence, and faith in the future were concerned.
Like Obama, all presidential candidates talk a good game, and mere optimism alone is definitely not enough to get the job done. But given the despair that currently characterizes our dour national mood, it is imperative that we seek and find someone as the next president who can reverse the poll numbers recited above while providing courageous and skillful political leadership in the process.
Figuring out who fits this bill is not easy, yet we have somehow succeeded when required in the past. Perhaps Providence, or even our politics, will provide someone for us once again.