WASHINGTON -- Few will argue with the notion that a large majority of Americans are in a "sour mood" in this election year about the country's general direction.
Americans have turned darkly pessimistic about their nation, a mood fed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; $3-a-gallon gas; anxiety about the economy; a jittery stock market; and an overall belief that not much is getting done in Washington these days.
Interviews with politicians and pollsters in various parts of the country suggest that other things are feeding this depression, from higher property taxes, corruption at many levels of government, and a diet of news that is always bad, or at least spun that way on television and in newspapers.
At the risk of disagreeing with the conventional wisdom of the American people, I would argue that there are many reasons to feel good about the general direction of events at home and abroad.
Much of the story in Afghanistan and Iraq is about unremitting violence at the hands of the hated Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists, who have slowly but inexorably raised U.S. casualties. But the military mission that was the major U.S. geopolitical objective there has been achieved: freely elected democratic governments that are functioning as best they can, though still in their infancy.
The agreement last month to form a government in Iraq is historic and beyond the terrorists' power of to reverse. From time to time, our TV screens are filled with a few thousand demonstrating youths, expressing anger at the United States (usually instigated by the terrorists). But keep in mind that these demonstrators do not represent the 25 million Iraqis and millions of Afghans who voted for self-government.
Sure, we are appalled by the persistent bloodshed there, but what we are on the verge of accomplishing -- pro-Western governments planted in the heart of the Middle East's terrorist breeding grounds -- will yield rich dividends for future generations at home and abroad.
The growing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has been the focus of global fears that have led to soaring oil prices and destabilized the region.
However, the Iranians are now sending signals they want to talk to us, and, last week, the United States said it would join in European talks about Iran's nuclear program -- with certain provisos. Namely, they must first suspend their uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear materials.
This is a big breakthrough for the Bush administration in what has been a very sticky, diplomatically difficult security issue that could turn the heat down significantly in a region fraught with peril.
The United States is using the time-honored carrot-and-stick approach. Turn away from your nuclear program and there will be benefits. Persist and there will be serious economic sanctions.
The first signals out of Iran suggest they are standing their ground, but it is early yet in the dance of negotiations that will follow. For now, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's offer to talk offers hope in what had looked like a hopeless situation.
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy continues to defy all those critics who have been predicting its demise, as well as the Federal Reserve's misguided efforts to slow its solid growth.
Just about all of the data so far on jobs, retail sales, construction, factory orders and home sales continue to show a national economy operating on all cylinders. Americans, however, are not convinced. They see news stories of plant closings in certain sectors like autos and a slight slowdown in housing sales from an unsustainable pace -- as the economy continues to undergo a sweeping transformation to keep it lean and competitive in the global marketplace.
But we finished the first quarter with a surprisingly healthy growth rate, incomes in the aggregate are up, corporate earnings are strong, the small-business sector remains the hottest part of the investment market -- a bullish sign of the economy's future vitality.
Gas prices are eating into discretionary consumer spending, but so far there is no evidence that this is sandbagging the economy, though it no doubt will have some impact if oil prices do not come down before then.
As for nothing getting done in Washington: Congress has extended some of Bush's most important tax cuts on dividends and capital gains. The Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that now goes into conference with the House. The House has approved a budget that no doubt spends too much, but that will have to be reconciled with the two chambers.
The Senate has swiftly confirmed and the administration installed a new director of the Central Intelligence Agency to reform an agency that is on the frontline of the war against terrorism. A new secretary of the Treasury is about to sail through confirmation, too. This is not a Congress sitting on its laurels.
And this is not a country worthy of the kind of pessimism and doubt that the pollsters are hearing from the voters. Maybe they are asking the wrong questions.
Asymmetrical Politics: Republicans Act Like an Unruly Mob, Democrats Like a Regimented Army | Michael Barone