By Editor-in-chief
updated 1/5/2007 8:52:55 AM ET 2007-01-05T13:52:55

Most Americans think their country is on the wrong track. Solid majorities also are tired of the war in Iraq, oppose President Bush and have lost faith in the leadership of virtually every American institution – from politics, business and the media to schools and churches.

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But they are habitually optimistic about the future. It’s a paradox that every candidate for the 2008 presidential nominations must learn to grasp as well as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did in 1980 and 1992, respectively, when voters were equally torn. This time, the Internet may be a key.

“Americans are, by and large, an optimistic lot,” said Oregon-based pollster Tim Hibbits, “even when they feel pessimistic.”

A new AP-AOL News Poll finds that while most Americans said 2006 was a bad year for the country, three-fourths thought it had been a good one for them and their families. Seven in 10 Americans feel good about what 2007 will bring for the country, and nearly 90 percent are optimistic about the new year for them and their families.

A Washington Post-ABC News Poll found similar sentiments about 2007. More than 60 percent of the public said it would be a good year for protecting against terrorist attacks, the state of the national economy and “the way things are going in this country.”

By contrast, more than six in 10 Americans tell pollsters the country is on the “wrong track.” Bush’s polls ratings are reaching historical lows. And most Americans don’t think the U.S. is winning in Iraq, according to a variety of surveys.

Why the paradox? It could be that people don rose-colored glasses in dark times because nobody wants to face a grim future. Optimism may be the defense mechanism of a battered American psyche. “It’s easier to say the present is s--- if you can make yourself believe that the future isn’t s--- as well,” Hibbits said.

Another theory is that a jaded American public is no longer surprised by the failures of U.S. institutions and their leaders, and that technologies like the Internet empower them to change their lives and the nation. A voter who would have felt angry and isolated a generation ago may be just as angry today, but now he or she can find armies of likeminded souls and take matters into their own hands. This e-liberation gives voters reason to hope.

“We now have a strong grasp on the truth and what politics is capable of, which isn’t much,” said Heidi Boynton, a cancer survivor and mother of two in Santa  Cruz, Calif. “We’ve realized that we can’t just sit around and worry about what everybody else does about this problem or that problem. We have to fix things ourselves.”

Boynton, who just returned from Mexico where she helped build houses and deliver food to the poor, is a member of, an issues-based community that is a part of the user-generated revolution on the Web. “We used to think that our government would take care of everything and were disenchanted when they didn’t,” she said. “Now we know the government won’t, and we know we can.”

A poll of community members, mostly grassroots opinion leaders, shows that fewer than 40 percent believe their quality of life improved in 2006. And yet, nearly 60 percent agree with this statement: “My quality of life will improve in 2007.”

These are important points to a presidential candidate who must learn to both reflect the public’s dour view about today and habitual optimism about tomorrow. Reagan and Clinton mastered the combination to win their first terms.

“Both of them acknowledged that things are screwed up, but we can do so much better,” Hibbits said.

On one of the last days of 2006 – and in the state that holds the first 2008 presidential primary – Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards updated Clinton’s don’t-stop-thinking-about-tomorrow message for this era of individual empowerment.

“What we’re asking is for you, the people of New Hampshire, not to wait for the next election to take responsibility,” Edwards said Dec. 29, during his campaign announcement tour. “Identifying a problem and talking about hope is talking about tomorrow. We can’t wait until tomorrow.”

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