Things have been better, no doubt about that.
We're still at war. The economy sputters like a poorly tuned engine. National unemployment hovers around 9 percent - over 10 percent in Georgia and more than 9 percent in Chattanooga.
With the election of a new president less than a year away, residents are aware of the gloomy numbers. Many are asking who can make it better; which candidate can turn this economy around and put people to work again?
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Times Free Press and the Georgia Newspaper Partnership recently conducted dozens of interviews with ordinary Georgians and Chattanoogans. Reporters talked with the old, the young, the retired and the recently hired, asking: What are the key issues facing the nation? How has President Barack Obama done? What should the Republican candidates be talking about?
Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, GOP presidential contenders with strong Georgia roots, have supporters across the state. Many respondents said they still support Obama, though perhaps not as enthusiastically as they did in 2008.
And everywhere - on campus in Chattanooga, at a hardware store in Atlanta, on the sidewalks of Ringgold - people said they worry about the loss of jobs, about the flat economy. Some wondered if Americans' renowned optimism finally has run dry.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore Brittany Morgan, 20, frowned as she walked to an exercise science class.
"No one's looking at the whole population or the whole America," she said. "It's like, if it's not affecting us, let's not worry about it."
Patent attorney Duane Minley paused as he ate lunch outside a Midtown Atlanta office building.
"The big problem?" he said. "It's a loss of hope."
Hope. It became a mantra for Obama in his 2008 bid for the White House. Now, it's a word some people utter with sarcasm.
The nation doesn't appear much better off than it was when Obama was elected, said Atlanta resident Grace Kugler, a 24-year-old bartender who considers herself a liberal.
"I don't see that much change," she said.
Nor does Fred Griffin. The owner of a bicycle and lawnmower shop in Brunswick, Griffin said the "hope and change" Obama promised hasn't materialized.
"I just want the economy to turn around," said Griffin, 49, a Republican. "It's time for somebody to get into office who knows what the struggle is all about, someone who has experienced it themselves."
Brannon Sean Harris, who will vote for the first time next year, was succinct.
"The country is going straight to hell," said Harris, 19, a management trainee from Columbus. "It's bad."
How bad? Ringgold business owner Paul Lee, 44, described it in a way any motorist can understand.
"It's like we are going down a one-way street when we need to be making a U-turn," he said.
But even lifelong Republicans worry about the crowded GOP field's steering skills. As she considered the options in her Red Bank driveway, 79-year-old Ruth Hafley shook her head.
"If it depends on them, we won't have a new president," she said. "I'm telling you, they can't quit tearing each other up! It's crazy."
Juan Betancourt, a 41-year-old Athens entrepreneur and investor, used more apocalyptic terms.
"This country," said Betancourt, who believes the federal government should do more to regulate large banks, "is imploding."
Douglas Burge, 40, is a landscaper from Rockmart in Northwest Georgia. He has strong feelings about the country's current status.
"It's going in a bad direction right now," said Burge. "I think it's too much war - too much money spent on different wars."
The nation is not spending enough money within its own borders, he said.
"We need to stop buying so many imports and start sending out as many exports as we import," he said. "We need to stop sending jobs overseas."
The nation may need new leaders to get back on track, suggested Cedartown resident Jill Swanson.
"It seems like a lot of money is being wasted," said Swanson, 34 and a student. "Our country's officials have become very selfish and self-concerned. I don't think they care very much about the common citizens."
Lisa Jacocks, an assistant office manager from Ringgold, worries about the national debt. A Republican, she had pointed advice for candidates and elected officials.
"I would like to see them 'man up' and take the tough stand on the things that will straighten out the country's debt," said Jacocks, 46. "The next president and Congress need to quit blowing smoke, make the necessary changes, regardless of whether or not it upsets their pocketbooks, quit being self-centered and think of the average American."
Less political squabbling between Democrats and Republicans would help the nation, 24-year-old medical student Will Melton said.
"There's no middle ground" between the two parties, said Melton, a Columbus native attending classes at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. "There are two extremes."
According to David Tyndale, a 37-year-old small business owner based in Ooltewah, all the bickering among politicians boils down to a general consensus among voters.
"I think people are really jaded right now," he said. "Frustrated."
Kudos for Obama
Politicians need to collaborate more, agreed Chavis Jones, 20, a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
He "leans toward" the Democratic Party, but is realistic: "I have to prepare myself for the possibility that a Republican will be president," he said.
Jones, who wasn't old enough to vote in 2008, said Obama has not delivered the change he promised. But the president, he added, has been busy with a tanking economy and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"It's like when Abraham Lincoln was elected to office," said Jones. "He had the Civil War."
Jewel McSpadden, a 67-year-old retiree at the Gateway Towers housing project in Chattanooga, said she'll vote for Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee.
"I wish people would let him do his job," she said. "He's an intelligent man, and he deserves a second term."
Obama has had a hard time, said Cedartown retiree John Moore. He called himself a "yellow dog Democrat," faithful to all Democratic candidates.
"I can't believe Obama would even want another four years the way Congress has treated him," said Moore, 80.
Things may be getting better for Obama, said 51-year-old Atlanta resident Cliff Harris.
Harris works at a hardware store, and said people lately have been buying more paint, more flooring, sprucing up their homes.
To him, that means people are gaining confidence in the country - their president, too.
"These are important indicators," said Harris, an Obama supporter. "People are spending money again."
Obama needs four more years, said Shirley Jones of Macon. She's 56, a retired medical worker, and believes the nation's "messed-up economy" took root when Bill Clinton was in office and grew during George W. Bush's tenure.
"It's going to take time to figure it out," she said. "If we can get him back into office, he'll do his job."
Obama's had all the chances he needs to set things right, said Mike Carroll of Gainesville.
Carroll, 58 and a former Democrat, said he is looking at the field of GOP contenders, hoping someone will inspire his confidence. "I'm waiting to see what everybody's going to do," he said.
Cain may be the best candidate, said Columbus resident Kathleen Bovaird, 55. A lifelong Democrat, Bovaird said she might be willing to switch allegiances to vote for Cain, a nationally syndicated radio host and former CEO of Godfather's Pizza.
"I don't think it's a bad idea for a businessman to run the country," she said.
Atlanta paralegal Glenda Smith, 48, said she's leaning toward Cain, "but I'm not sure of his longevity as a candidate."
Other Republicans want someone who never entered the race. As he waited for his Chattanooga lunch partner, 73-year-old Marvin Nichols mentioned Sarah Palin and criticized those who delight in her "mistakes."
"I believe she's a smart woman," he said. "You don't become governor of the state of Alaska for being stupid."
Mark and Tressie Fletcher said they're leaning toward a familiar name in Georgia politics.
"Newt Gingrich is looking pretty good to me," said Fletcher, 83, as he and his wife, recovering from knee surgery, walked a trail at Fort Oglethorpe. The Fletchers said they once were Democrats, but no longer.
If government doesn't curtail spending, warned Fletcher, future generations will face a huge national debt.
"That's what worries me," the retired electrical utility executive said. "I've got grandchildren."
America does face challenges as its citizens prepare for another election, said Tabitha Gallman, a web designer who works from her home in Gordon County, between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Unemployment and the economy are reasons to worry, she said.
But Gallman sounded an optimistic note:
"There is always hope."
This article was compiled with reports from the Calhoun Times and the Rome News-Tribune; and from staff writers Chris Carroll, Andy Johns and Mariann Martin, Chattanooga Times Free Press; Blake Aued and Erin France of the Athens Banner-Herald; Meg Mirshak, The Augusta Chronicle; Melody Dareing and Lowell Vickers,The Cedartown Standard and The Rockmart Journal; Michael Owen, Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus; Patrick Stoker, Jeff Gill and Dallas Duncan, The Times in Gainesville; Terry Dickson of the Georgia Times-Union; and Phillip Ramati, The Telegraph in Macon.