Was there ever a time in American life when people were happy with the way things were? Was there every a time when they didn't want change?
Was there ever really a "good old days," or is that just a fiction, a product of our idealized memories, a backward reflection of our current discontent?
Whatever the answer, most people are clearly unhappy with the here and now. More than 80 percent of Americans tell pollsters that the country is on the wrong track and they are dissatisfied with the status quo.
Yet optimism is the most American of American traits. Americans truly believe that life will always get better, that our children will have a better life than us and their children will have a better life than them.
But to achieve this, we need change. Everybody now running for president and vice president agrees on that.
Change is the byword, the buzzword, the essence of both the Democratic and Republican campaigns for president.
Barack Obama made it the cornerstone of his campaign in the primaries. He ultimately defeated Hillary Clinton by portraying her as an agent of the old Washington ways, while he promised to turn the page and bring change.
In his acceptance speech in Denver, he used the word 15 times, including: "The change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time."
Joe Biden, his running mate, used the word six times, including a slap at McCain. "These times require more than a good soldier; they require a wise leader, a leader who can deliver change," Biden said, "the change everybody knows we need."
John McCain, too, has picked up on the "change" theme. McCain used the word no fewer than nine times in his acceptance speech in St. Paul, Minn., last week. "Change is coming!" he promised. "In America, we change things that need to be changed."
Sarah Palin used "change" only three times, but she did a neat little riff on it in order to bash Obama while praising McCain. "In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers," she said, "and then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change."
Obama is now a little miffed at how the Republicans are using what he considers his theme. "They had been running on experience; now they're trying to repackage themselves," Obama said in Flint, Mich., on Monday. "We've been talking about the need to change this country for 19 months. I guess it must be working, because suddenly now John McCain is saying I'm for change, too."
So does this mean that voters will get change no matter whom they vote for?
Maybe. Or maybe they will get what they have gotten in the past: empty promises.
As John McCain points out, many people get elected by promising change, but change never seems actually to take place.
What happens instead? He pointed out the problem in his acceptance speech.
"We were elected to change Washington," McCain said, "and we let Washington change us."
But maybe it will be different this time. For a change.