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 says. "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.
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."
Nearly two-thirds lack confidence that life for today's children will be better than it has been for today's adults, according to 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.
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, where she is a freshman. "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."
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."
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.