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Finding the American Spirit After 9/11

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America continues to look for its true spirit in a post 9/11 world.

Just as the Vietnam war reset expectations about America in the world, so 9/11 changed America's outlook in the opening of the 21st century.

Coming off of the Clinton administration highs of boundless peace and prosperity, the public was little prepared for the next decade that would be dominated by war, global strife, surging deficits and problems at home.

More than 2/3rds of the country sees the last 10 years as a decade of decline for America according to a TIME/Aspen Ideas Festival poll I conducted earlier this summer that probed Americans on the decade since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The country is going through the longest sustained period of unhappiness and deep pessimism since polls started to measure the country's mood. Today's teenagers can barely remember a time when things in the country were on the right track.

A country known for its optimism through adversity is having trouble finding the determination and the spirit that has sustained it through everything from world wars to nuclear threats to space races. In fact, a startling 71% see America as worse off now than it was a decade ago, including a majority of every major demographic group other than African Americans.

Given that the country has been through two vastly different administrations in the last 10 years, it is surprising that neither has been able to boost the public's sour mood.

But while 9/11 was an unexpected, external threat that changed the course of American history, the biggest threats today are seen as internal rather than external -- it's the enemy within that Americans register the most concern about now -- runaway deficits, political gridlock, persistent unemployment and spiraling healthcare costs. Osama bin Laden may now be dead and Al Qaeda's network seriously weakened, but the impact of 9/11 and the decisions that followed it have, in the views of most Americans, put America in a tailspin that so far the country has been unable to shake.

America points the finger squarely at its politicians for the decade of decline. The Bush Administration takes the most heat as 23% named it as the cause, followed by the Obama Administration (20%) and the U.S. Congress (16%); only 6% blame Wall Street. Moreover, the current systemic inability of Congress and the President to agree on virtually anything only fuels the notion that our government is broken.

So where does that leave the American Spirit? It's lacking its characteristic spunk; confidence has been replaced by fear and concern. Most believe America is falling further behind the rest of the world.

America believed it had found the leader it was looking for in Barack Obama just as they found Reagan after Carter. Now they are not so sure. They had doubts about Clinton during the journey as well so this is not unusual, and the president can still be that choice.

But the upcoming presidential election will not just be about the economy, the deficit or taxes, it will also be about who can best restore America's confidence in itself in a post 9/11 world. The American public is looking for a renewal in 2012 just as it did in 1960, 1980 and 1992. And coming out of a lost decade, the urgency for this only grows.

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