01/24/2012 02:00 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

A Way Forward, or a Yearning for the Past?

As we get ready to hear President Obama's third State of the Union address and all the discussion and analysis that will go along with it, let's try to understand where the citizens of America are at this moment and why the unfolding of the presidential race reflects the sentiments of much of the country.

The best way to understand what people are looking for in their leaders is a close reflection on what they are looking for in their daily lives -- both personally and professionally. How we look at our leaders and the desires and hopes we cherish are revealed in many ways in our relationships and in the conduct of our lives.

Today, much of America is incredibly anxious, afraid, less hopeful, a bit lost and unsure, and frustrated with (and in some cases angry at) our inefficient, dysfunctional government. Much of the country can't stand the polarized partisan politics, believes we are off on the wrong track, has lost faith in the president's leadership, and gives Congress the lowest rating of all time. In a study done not long ago using Carl Jung's archetypes, a majority of voters saw themselves as orphans.

When we are about to leave an unhappy and unhealthy relationship or have already left, we each yearn for something better. We hope there is someone who will understand us, see us for who we are, stand by us, and help us become the person we want to be. Sometimes the problem in our personal life is that the vision of that person is unclear, unknown, and seemingly unattainable. Then we all have a tendency to say maybe its better to stay in the bad relationship or go back to what we knew before, even if we know it's probably best to move forward and the good lies ahead not behind us.

If the future is unclear for us in our personal life, we have a tendency to look back and yearn for a time in the past -- even if that past wasn't wholly real or a myth. It takes someone presenting us a clear vision of what a relationship might be, and a path to get there, to give us the courage to step forward and move into it even if fear is present.

The same is true for our country writ large. Most people in America have no understanding or clarity of what the future looks like -- either economically or structurally. We know things are changing fast and furiously beneath our feet, we know our institutions at every level no longer fit our time, and we know the global dynamics are in great flux. And not only have our leaders not presented a clear vision of the future, they have not laid out the path forward. What are the steps that we need to take at every level to move into this new frontier? We really don't know where we are going, and we don't know how to get there even if we did.

And so, as in our own personal relationships, we begin to yearn for the past. Without a vision forward, we look backward and long for a time long gone that our minds and hearts convince us is secure and safe. Even if we know deep down that much of what we look back at isn't real or not all great and good, it seems better than an unknown or attainable promised land. This is where we are at today.

And the Republican candidates for president by and large, but most especially Newt Gingrich, are presenting messages of a great America in our rear-view mirror where things were predictable and we can get comfort. It is interesting that even Gingrich's biography is a placeholder for the past, and the communication is all about past times of greatness.

President Obama has a great opportunity in his State of the Union speech to present a vision of the future, a path to get there, and reassure Americans that he is the strong, hopeful, optimistic leader to take us there. Does he have the capacity to do this? Absolutely. Will he? I don't know. It is so easy to lapse into the base politics of today's status quo, and point fingers, and not rise above all the incredible dysfunction.

If the president doesn't do this at some point soon, then the country will more and more look to a promise of the past. Or maybe one of the Republican candidates will figure out that they need a narrative about the future and not the past. And if they do, and the president sticks to partisan politics, it doesn't bode well for his reelection. I am hopeful that in his State of the Union address, the president conveys what many of us want -- a steady and trusted partner who will help us walk into the future and help us become our better selves.

Cross-posted from National Journal.