03/14/2013 09:33 am ET Updated May 14, 2013

Our National Optimism Deficit

"Let us be of good cheer," said the 19th century diplomat-writer James Russell Lowell, "remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those that will never happen."

I am of the opinion that the gravest threat to our republic today is not terrorism, the federal debt, global warming or even our deplorable public education schools, but rather a critical deficit of optimism. I read and travel constantly and feel I have to some extent my fingers on the public pulse. Everywhere I look I encounter yet more doom and gloom among people who should be out there inspiring us to greater things. I perceive a general angst that we are adrift, that our ship of state has struck a reef and is foundering in a turbulent sea.

I have lived a long time and can recall when we faced much greater perils with stout hearts and confidence in the future. During the nadir of the Great Depression, one worker out of four was unemployed in an era when we had little safety net. Millions of Americans did not have enough to eat. During World War II, we had to totally mobilize our people and resources to battle some of the darkest and most dangerous forces in history. We were able to surmount those challenges in large measure because we had leaders, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who understood the importance of optimism. Through his famous "fireside chats," FDR spoke directly to the fears and concerns of the people, and lifted their spirits in a time when it really did seem like there was nothing but trouble and hardship in the road ahead. It isn't enough for people at the top to analyze complex trends, design enlightened policies and craft wise legislation. They must also articulate our national values and evoke confidence in the future.

We are suffering from a national optimism deficit and a major portion of the responsibility for it lies with the news media that is overly obsessed with negative news and encumbered by a gloomy outlook. The proliferation of Internet-based information sources not only feeds a growing sense of alienation but also perverts public discourse with false reports and extremist viewpoints.

I am by no means oblivious to the many challenges confronting our nation, and am increasingly disturbed by the lack of comity among our elected leaders in Washington when we so desperately need leadership. But it is not as bad as it seems. We continue to enjoy the world's highest standard of living and are for the most part secure from external threats. Advances in technology and health care are daily enhancing both the quality and length of our lives. We have much to be thankful for, and every reason to believe that we can overcome our challenges on the way to a brighter future.

But to realize that dream, keep faith with the generations before us and preserve our heritage, we need to regain our faith in our destiny and that critical sense of optimism about the future that has sustained us through hard times over the years.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.