All it takes to find out why America is in such a bad mood is a look at the local section of any American newspaper, at the photos of the smiling faces of soldiers killed in Iraq.
All it takes to discover why Americans are beginning to doubt their own greatness is to accept an invitation to a dinner hosted by Adrian Fenty, the mayor of Washington, DC. His vision, says Fenty, is for students in the District of Columbia to receive their books at the beginning of the school year, not in the middle. When asked whether he has other visions, the mayor nods enthusiastically. His goal, he says, is to improve security in the city's schools. Fenty wants to make sure students in the United States capital can once again leave the classroom without facing the threat of violence.
All it takes to understand why the United States, a once-proud economic power, seems so unsure about itself these days is a walk through a supermarket with author Sara Bongiorni. In her book "A Year without 'Made in China': One Familys True Life Adventure in the Global Economy," Bongiorni describes how even those who call themselves smart shoppers have mixed feelings when they purchase low-priced, foreign-made products. "When I see the label 'Made in China,' part of me says: good for China. But another part feels a rush of sentimentality because I've lost something without exactly knowing what it is."
Taking a trip down America's memory lane -- to Gary, Indiana, for instance -- is a good way to understand why Americans today are so anxious about the future. In the days when Gary was the home of the world's biggest steel company, the running joke was that US Steel was so hard up for workers that it would even hire dead people.
The company attracted workers from around the world, including the family of future pop star Michael Jackson. Gary's steelworkers pumped prosperity into America, and the country still retains a sizeable chunk of the past that once thrived in Gary and other places like it.
Optimism Is Becoming an Endangered Species
But Gary is an ailing city today. US Steel has moved its headquarters elsewhere and has severely cut back its Gary operations. Nowadays, the city isn't doing any better than its most famous son. Both have seen better days, but the difference is that Gary doesn't even have the money for a facelift. Once a city of 200,000, half of its population has since left for greener pastures.
Gary is not America by any means. And yet many Americans feel that their country could soon be following in Gary's footsteps. Optimism, once considered practically a part of the American genetic makeup, has suffered considerably in recent years.
Demographers paint a picture of a somewhat melancholic, acutely dissatisfied and to some extent bitter nation. And while many would lay the blame at the feet of the country's unpopular president, George W. Bush, American frustration goes far beyond the current occupant of the White House.
Sixty percent of Americans believe that the next generation will be worse off than their own. A majority of Americans have no confidence in the government's ability to solve the nation's problems. Sixty-two percent are convinced that the administration is a failure at everything it tries to do. The logo on a popular T-shirt reads: "I Love My Country. It's the Government I'm Afraid Of!"
Sixty-eight percent of Americans see their country going down the wrong path in every respect. According to demographers, America today is even more overcome by pessimism than it was in 1974, a disastrous year in American politics. It was the year the US military withdrew from Vietnam; and back in Washington, the Watergate scandal led to the impeachment of then-President Richard Nixon. The New York Times even has a name for it: the "happiness gap."
There is in fact little today that an American can be proud of, unless he happens to be one of the lucky few to have collected an annual bonus or won the Nobel Peace Prize. The only thing that has doubled in the seven years of the Bush administration is the country's military budget. By comparison, the average US family income has stagnated in the last decade or so.
A look at the US economy doesn't exactly offer grounds for optimism. The US's share of global exports has been cut in half since 1960. The balance of trade deficit has skyrocketed from about $80 billion in 1992 to a forecast $700 billion in 2007. The dollar has lost 24 percent of its value against the euro.
The Bush administration's answer to skeptics is that America is still growing at a faster rate than Europe. Consumer spending drives the economy, say politicians in Washington. But since when has consumer spending made a nation wealthy?
'Happy Talk' Is Spoiling Americans' Moods
It is this attempt to normalize the abnormal, to insist that the exception is in fact the rule, that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in a recent speech to businesspeople in Chicago, called America's constant "happy talk," and is in fact spoiling the mood for Americans.
Even Alan Greenspan, not quite as reticent now that he no longer heads the US Federal Reserve Bank, has taken to qualifying his earlier optimism. Talking to students at a Washington university recently, Greenspan cautioned them against the pitfalls of making "rosy assumptions." His comments were met with a sea of dead-serious faces.
Americans are capable of handling anything -- just not the notion that something cannot be improved. When their pioneering ancestors tamed and developed the nation, their motto was: "If you can dream it, you can do it." But nowadays more and more Americans face nights as dreamless as their days are dreary. America's new reality is simple: Hope dies first.
Many believed that the early start to the presidential election campaign would lift the country's spirits. The sooner the Bush era comes to an end, they thought, the better. Elections in America are always a time to dream.
The American Dream, the great hope of a better future, is the most important promise a candidate must deliver before he or she can move into the White House. According to journalist and author William Safire, if government institutions are the skeleton of the body politic, then the American Dream is its soul.
American politicians wear their dreams on their sleeves. Ronald Reagan once said that, for him, the American Dream means "that each individual has the right to fly as high as his strength and ability will take him." John F. Kennedy dreamed of a "world without war." Richard Nixon was dreaming of himself when he said, accepting his party's nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in 1960: "I believe in the American Dream because I have seen it come true in my own life."
Dreaming of the Past
The dreams of the current political season are woven from the cloth of nostalgia. Candidates across the political spectrum constantly use words like restoring, rethinking and reshaping, and spout concepts like regaining the US's position as a global power, rediscovering its identity and reestablishing its national resolve.
The Republicans recently held a conference at Washington's Mayflower Hotel devoted to the American Dream, clearly with the intention of boosting their collective confidence as they face the future. An image of a sky filled with stars was projected on the ceiling of the darkened ballroom. Some men in the audience were even wearing white cowboy hats with their business suits.
Several presidential candidates spoke at the event, but a speaker who chose to celebrate, once again, the West's victory over communism drew the loudest applause. After projecting a slide of an East German-made Trabant car on the wall, he said that it showed what happens when a communist planned economy wins the contest. The audience was ecstatic. Who would have thought that the Cold War could still warm the cockles of Republican hearts today?
Visions of the future, on the other hand, are not in demand with voters who -- again resembling Germans in this respect -- aren't quite sure what exactly they want.
When it comes to the future, the issue of global warming raises the most puzzling questions. According to an NBC News survey, today twice as many Americans as last year say that the climate issue is the "world's biggest environmental problem." And yet the number of Americans who favor stricter government control over gasoline consumption has been declining.
Presidential candidates face aging and increasingly jaded voters.
Attitudes toward healthcare policy are equally paradoxical. A majority of Americans says "yes" to Hillary Clinton's call for universal healthcare, and yet a majority says "no" when it comes time to pay for the additional costs that such a system would impose.
A man like Karl Rove, the strategist behind George W. Bush and the architect of his two presidential campaigns, has long since noticed the sour mood and indecisiveness dominating American society today. Rove would love to drive an enormous political wedge into this rift within the US population, and his first recommendation to the Republicans is to enthusiastically place Hillary Clinton's healthcare policies at the center of the coming election campaign. Let the voters decide, he says cunningly, whether they would trade freedom for government bureaucracy.
But when it comes to their attitudes toward the social welfare state, Germans and Americans differ widely. Voters from Passau in Bavaria to the Baltic Sea island of Rügen in Germany are convinced that the state will help them get something from their neighbors. But voters from Miami to Seattle fear that if the state intervenes, they will be forced to give some of their hard-earned wealth to their neighbors.
New York Times columnist David Brooks sees his country trapped in a "treacherous political maelstrom." On the one hand, Brooks writes, people are desperate for change. On the other hand, voters are unwilling to accept any changes to their status quo. "People want a night watchman for a government, which patrols near their houses but never walks in the door."
Hillary Clinton could very well be the right woman at the right time. She does anger the left, however, because she doesn't even attempt to fulfill their expectations. Her pragmatism makes sense, but this is precisely why many find it so unbearable.
'Hillaryland' - a Country of Limited Possibilities
Campaigning means announcing a bold political architecture and not outlining a seating chart for the coming years, her critics say. But Hillary Clinton refuses to yield. Anyone who has spent an evening with her knows that she is polite, precise, hungry for knowledge, energetic and disciplined. But she is by no means a visionary.
Her pragmatism is of the brittle variety. Unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sometimes seems similarly rigid in her daily routines, Hillary Clinton never allows even the slightest hint of subversive humor to cross her lips, not even in the smallest of groups.
For that reason she is too cautious, too mistrustful. One could almost believe that it was Clinton, not Merkel, who spent her formative years in East Germany. Her constant could haves, should haves and would haves, her mastery of the art of qualifying everything she says, and the fact that if she does walk a tightrope, it is never far from the ground and just a few inches above a political safety net -- all of this makes her a formidable opponent.
If the Americans vote Clinton into office, they will follow in the footsteps of her husband Bill and enter into a marriage of convenience with her. Hillaryland is a land of limited possibilities.
But perhaps America's collective depression has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush. Perhaps neither the Iraq war nor globalization is solely to blame for America's blues. What if the real problem lies with the American people and not with the circumstances?
The challenges facing America today are no more daunting than those of the past. Americans have always been called upon to exert enormous amounts of energy to establish, develop and defend their superpower. But the difference is that the people facing today's challenges do so with weakened reserves of strength.
An Aging Society with Dwindling Joie de Vivre
The baby boomers, who gave America its rhythm, have grown older. Only 12 percent of all adults were older than 65 in 1950, while almost twice as many are today. America has never been as old as it is in 2007.
While the average age of the population rises, many other characteristics diminish with age -- courage, confidence and the willingness to accept risk. The most successful album in the country's record stores today is "Long Road Out of Eden," by the early 1970s rock band The Eagles. Trikes -- three-wheelers for the older set -- represent the only growing segment in the American motorcycle business.
The Baby Boomers grew up watching movies like "Easy Rider" and came of age reading Philip Roth's "Everyman." The life story of Roth's tragic hero, the former creative director of an ad agency, parallels that of the Baby Boomers: a reasonably successful career, a series of erotic experiences, private failures and life-long enmities.
We first meet the protagonist in Roth's novel as his spirit, observing his friends, enemies and various wives as they attend his own funeral. Life doesn't let you start over again, one of the mourners says under his breath. All are united in their sentimentality.
Sometimes real life mirrors fiction. Three of the country's most renowned political consultants recently got together for the first time in a lecture hall at the New York Public Library: George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley and a close advisor to the Democrats, Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, and Drew Westen, a psychologist from the University of Michigan, also a Democrat. The three men have spent decades practically at each other's throats.
But now they were talking about ideals, the best way to run a campaign and language, including the wrong kind of language. The Republican said that he was troubled by the term, coined by Bush, "War on Terror," because it spreads fear and stifles optimism.
Democrats Fondly Evoke Reagan
Westen, one of the two Democrats, said he had fond memories of Ronald Reagan and his legendary campaign ad titled, "It's morning again in America." The ad tells the story of a country in which inflation is down and marriages are up, a country that is "prouder and stronger and better" than it was before. The rich voice of the announcer tells Americans that they can "look forward with confidence to the future. It's morning again in America."
Westen insisted on playing the ad for the 500 people in the audience. The effect was dramatic, as if someone had suddenly declared a cease-fire in an era marked by political conflict.
The three experts on the stage were also visibly moved. Luntz, the Republican, was the first to speak, and his words were in the language of reconciliation: "Can't we understand each other again? Can't we come together again? Can't we all regain hope again?"
His words were met with thundering applause.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan