COLUMBUS, Ohio -- He's 30, between jobs, with $50,000 in student debt and no clear sense what the future holds. But Erik Santamaria, Ohio-born son of Salvadorans, has a pretty awesome attitude about his country, his life and the world of possibilities. "Maybe things won't work out the way I want," he offers. "But, boy, I sure can't complain about how things have worked out so far."
This is the sweet spot of American optimism, a trait that looms large in the nation's history and imagination. To find it these days, talk to an immigrant, the child of one or, failing that, a young person of any background. That's where the torch seems most likely to burn brightly.
With anyone else, it's hit or miss.
For many, these times are a slog. That "shining city on a hill" from political mythology looks more like a huffing climb up a field filled with ticks. Public opinion researchers find handwringing at almost every turn, over a glum and nervous decade defined by terrorism, then war, then recession, then paltry recovery.
Still, you aren't seeing pessimism in the season of the political conventions. The Democrats, convening Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., want to corner the franchise on happier tomorrows, just as the Republicans wanted at their convention this past week. The notion that America's best days are ahead comes packaged and polished from the stage, cheered by delegates in goofy hats.
But such platitudes probably won't go far with Marie Holly, 54. On her lunch break in a mall just north of Columbus, Holly recounts a struggle to get by as a temporary floor designer at a department store, making one-third of the salary she once earned at a graphics-design firm that cut hours and wages before she quit in January to freelance. She firmly believes in the American Dream, but in the sense of dreaming it, not grasping it.
"I'm not seeing anything to strive for, I guess," she said. "I'm settling."
Polls sing the blues:
• Nearly two-thirds lack confidence that life for today's children will be better than it has been for today's adults, said an NBC-Wall Street Journal survey in May.
• Half of registered voters do not see the U.S. as the shining city on a hill, meaning the example for other countries, though 45 percent do, according to a Fox News poll in June.
• In April 2011, a USA Today-Gallup poll found that optimism that the next generation's lives will be better than parents' dropped to its lowest level since the question was asked in 1983. Only 42 percent thought so. Before then, majorities always believed their children would have a better life.
• In a dramatic drop from the late 1990s and early 2000s, just over one-third were satisfied with the U.S. position in the world in a February Gallup poll, down from at least two-thirds in the months before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Younger people, though, typically see a rosier future than older generations. As long as that holds, optimism stays woven in the nation's fabric.
In an August Associated Press-Gfk poll, only about half said it's likely that today's youth will have a better standard of living than their parents. But optimism was the greatest among those who have the farthest to climb -- those of modest to low income, and the young themselves. In the poll, 55 percent of those earning under $50,000 said it's likely the next generation will do better; 58 percent of those under 35 expect to have a better life than their parents.
So it seems to be with Santamaria. He possesses both the idealism of his recently completed college years and the belief, perhaps stirred by his immigrant parents, that this is a land of options.
"Their dream for me would be picking the tallest building out here and making the most money," he said, sitting on a picnic table outside a downtown Columbus market with friends, and gesturing to the cityscape.
Before getting his English literature degree in June, he worked at the Limited Brands in Columbus, where he was responsible for communicating with managers and customs officers to make sure paperwork for overseas Bath & Body Works stores was properly handled.
"I know people are really struggling out there," he says. "But I looked for a few months and I ended up at the world headquarters of the Limited Brands, and I didn't even have my degree yet. I mean, months. And yeah, they were stressful but when I look back, I mean, a few months and I ended up there and I didn't even want to be there. I mean that's unreal. That's unreal opportunity."
Santamaria left that job and won't be seeking work at the city's tallest building, 41 stories housing state employees. He set his sights since growing up in Toledo on "being able to do something you really loved to do," more than raking in riches.
So he is moving to Pittsburgh to set up a non-denominational Christian church on the University of Pittsburgh campus. He won't be getting paid but hopes to get a foot in the door at a counselor's office and someday become an academic adviser and preacher.
Kayla Ruffin, 17, from Sylvania, Ohio, gives voice, too, to the idea that it's the young and restless who are sunny side up.
"It's really hard to get me in a bad mood," she said during orientation for new students at Ohio State University in Columbus, where she'll be a freshman in the fall. "I'm usually pretty excited to learn new things and meet new people."
She's free of the burdens of college debt and likely to stay that way, not typical for many students. "My dad, he has it all figured out," she said. "He's been planning my tuition since I was like born. So he's made it easy for me."
Ruffin will be studying aeronautical engineering and wants to design spaceships. "I just love everything that NASA does." And if that doesn't work, she said she'll tap into the same design skills to make golf clubs.
The February Gallup poll found that pessimism about life for the next generation deepened with age. Also, that the poor were more optimistic about tomorrow than the rich.
However down Americans get about the country's direction and what the future might hold, they tend to be more satisfied with their own lives.
Carl Adler, 69, is one of those. A retired Lutheran minister, he said his family learned to live on modest means and, with Social Security benefits and his wife's pension from years of teaching, "I'm wealthier now than I've ever been in my life."
Still, he said, "I think people my age are finding it difficult to be optimistic."
Does he believe the American dream is alive? "Oh boy, I don't know. I think it will be possible for fewer people."
"I'm not sure what the American dream is, to be honest, anymore. ... It seems like the middle class is disappearing."
This is more than an abstract thought for him. He's giving part of his retirement income to his son, who is married with two young kids and hasn't seen a raise in three years at the public college where he works in information technology. His daughter-in-law is in nursing school.
Ohio is a battleground state, so the political opinions of people who are out and about in Columbus no doubt matter more to the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns than voters' attitudes in the most dependable Democratic and Republican states.
But do people here think actions in Washington affect their lives? The capital seems awfully far away. Optimism, or pessimism, may have roots closer to home.
Adler's sense of wealth comes not just from retirement money but from family gatherings that carry on a life-long musical tradition: "If all the family is together, we have 28 people playing horns," he says.
For Santamaria, too, joy isn't derived from what happens inside the Washington Beltway. He says, "I don't depend on any president for my happiness."