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Why some Americans remain optimistic amid bad news

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: October 28, 2005

Despite war, federal incompetence, charges of White House misconduct, the deadliest natural disasters in modern times, threat of a bird flu pandemic and unprecedented energy costs, at least some Americans remain resolute in their optimism.

Thirty-six percent believe that America "basically is headed in the right direction," according to the latest poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center. It's the lowest, most pessimistic result in the 12 years the question has been asked.

But times that try men's _ and women's _ souls are also good times to study what kinds of people have unusually deep wells of optimism. Many of those who remain upbeat say they draw their sense of well being from sources other than the front page or the evening TV news.

"We are family oriented people here, so we stay pretty happy," concluded Rebecca Frederic, 65, of Saint Amant, La., about 60 miles north of New Orleans.

Even through she's a strong Democrat who disapproves of President Bush, even through Hurricane Katrina dropped lots of garbage in her yard and cut her electricity for days, even though she dislikes America's military involvement in Iraq, Frederic believes America in on the right track.

"I have four sons and nine grandchildren. And they all live around us. They are all fine boys and every Sunday they come to my house for a family dinner," Frederic said. "Our family doesn't have anyone in the war and some of the folks at the White House are getting caught. So all this makes me happy."

Republicans were pessimistic when Bill Clinton was president. Democrats are despondent now that Republicans control both Congress and the White House.

Some Republicans agree they are thinking of politics when pollsters ask them the broader question of whether America is on the right track.

"Yes, I think America is headed in the right direction," said attorney Allen Harvey, 50, from President Bush's hometown of Midland, Texas. "This country is the strongest country in the world. I'm glad we don't have a lily-livered liberal like (former Democratic presidential candidate) John Kerry running it."

About 70 percent of Americans who are optimistic about the country's direction also say they approve of the job President Bush is doing. A similar proportion of people who believe America is on the wrong track are also critical of Bush's performance.

But politics isn't the only factor influencing optimism and pessimism. People who attend church or synagogue regularly _ especially those with very strong beliefs _ are more hopeful than most.

"Yes, I'm optimistic," said Carol Smith, 47, a Jamaican-born single mother living in Brooklyn who, like most Democrats, is opposed to America's military presence in Iraq. "I don't have a college degree. But I believe in fate and in God and I believe that things will and must get better."

The survey was conducted by telephone from Oct. 9-23 at the Scripps Center in a project sponsored by Scripps Howard News Service and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

The poll has a margin of error of plus 4 percentage points.