Trying times for US optimism

A string of tragedies and threats is coloring the national mood.

Like many Americans, Alex Stremler is struggling to stay sanguine these days. It's not just the newly heightened terror alert - although, as an airline pilot, he's been preoccupied with security concerns ever since Sept. 11. He's also thinking about the looming war with Iraq, and the uncertain impact of what he sees as the Bush administration's "aggressive policies." On top of that, he's worried about the economy and his own job security. A New Yorker, he's grateful to be working despite months of industry turmoil, but he now has to fly out of St. Louis - a commute that keeps him away from home some 22 days each month.

"I try to be an optimist," he says. But "sometimes it seems like the world's caving in."

For a nation that not long ago was riding a high-tech boom and focusing on things like the president's indiscretions with an intern, the outlook has indeed changed dramatically. Suddenly, Americans are facing a relentless drumbeat of negative news: From terrorism to war with Iraq to brinkmanship with North Korea; from the sinking stock market and the faltering economy to the sniper attacks and shuttle crash - every week seems to bring word of yet another threat or tragedy.

Of course, Americans have always been a famously resilient people, and many are still confident the nation will rise up stronger in the end. Yet there's little doubt that all the adversity is having a profound effect on the national psyche. It could wind up stiffening the country's resolve - and may already be pushing people into a more hawkish position on Iraq, for example. But surveys also show more and more people believe the country is on the wrong track, and pollsters are using words like "cautious" and "dark" to describe the national mood.

"We're becoming less surprised that bad things are happening," says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster. "And that is a change in outlook in a country that always expects things to improve, that believes progress is always around the corner."

On the whole, Mr. Ciruli describes the public's current attitude as a combination of pessimism and realism. What's troubling, he says, is that right now Americans "don't see an endpoint" to many of the nation's problems: Most people envision a war with Iraq as long and costly, they're waiting for terrorists to strike at any minute, and they don't expect the economy to pick up any time soon.

For him, it's all bringing back gloomy memories of the 1970s, when the nation faced the Watergate scandal, war in the Middle East, soaring oil prices, stagflation, and the Iran hostage crisis.

Remembering waiting in long lines to fill the gas tank of his VW, he says: "You came to the conclusion that this is a new way of life here. That it wasn't going to end in six weeks."

Certainly America has faced challenging times before. As recently as the cold-war era, many people believed nuclear annihilation was just around the corner.

Still, some analysts contend that the current range of threats is different from - and more unsettling than - anything seen in recent decades. "You could contain communism. But chaos is a very different kind of enemy," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

The cold war was "kind of this fixed, gloomy thing, but it didn't change its shape very often," he says. Americans knew the threat was coming from one source, the Soviet Union, which made it easy to track. But now, "ratty little countries like North Korea have nuclear weapons," as well as biological and chemical weapons, while terrorist cells may be lurking right here at home.

"Most of us would probably trade this for the cold war any day," he says.

For many Americans, the shift has happened so quickly as to be bewildering. During the '90s, the promise of technology and free markets seemed to be spreading wealth, democracy, and peace across the globe. Not surprisingly, the sudden collapse of this vision has many Americans searching for some larger explanation.

Retired government worker Joan Jackson sees recent events as "a wake-up call from God." And she believes it may all lead to positive results: "It's bringing people closer together," she says. A Baptist, she has drawn comfort from her church and says she has stepped up her efforts to help others.

Some even see the current times in an apocalyptic light. According to a Gallup poll last year, more than half of Americans believe the prophecies in Revelation will come true, while 17 percent believe it will happen in their lifetime. "It's history just fulfilling the Bible, and there's nothing we can do about it," says Philadelphia construction worker Al Fountain.

Others are seeking explanations by taking a closer look at America's role in the world. They're probing the root of anti-American sentiment, and questioning the administration's policies.

"Everyone says someone has to police the world, and so it has to be us, but I don't agree with that," says Tim Gillham, a bicycle tour guide from San Luis Obispo, Calif. His town, which sits just 10 miles from the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, recently approved a resolution opposing war with Iraq.

Still, for many, the overwhelming sentiment seems to be a focus on just getting through the next few months.

"I have blinders on," admits Patti Clements, a legal secretary in San Luis Obispo. "I just want it to all go away."

Mary Beth McCauley in Philadelphia and Leila Wombacher Knox in San Luis Obispo, Calif., contributed to this report.

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