The land of the scared and the home of the afraid

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 26, 2011


The United States is going through a difficult time. Americans are pessimistic about the economic outlook. Seven out of every ten Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction. Many observers doubt the ability of the political leadership to agree on an effective plan to tackle the growing deficit and to adopt necessary reforms to make the country more competitive in a globalized world.


Though it should be an opportunity for candidates to lay out their plans to restore American self-confidence, the 2012 presidential campaign might evolve into an occasion for Americans to express their worries and fears. Though the country needs leaders that can call on Americans to make sacrifices to get the country on the right track, many politicians seem obsessed with playing a blame game that sends the wrong signals to a world that still believes more in the U.S. than what Americans now seem to believe in themselves.


The United States finds itself in a difficult historic moment. Military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, Libya are forcing the government to further increase defense spending and are putting a difficult burden on the armed forces, with negative effects on morale and on recruitment efforts. The sluggish economic recovery has slowed job creation. The growing budget deficit and, more importantly, the apparent inability of the political leadership to effectively bring it under control in the next few years, has added uncertainty over the capacity of the largest economy in the world to keep its global leadership position.


There is a growing perception that the best days for the United States are no longer ahead. One could argue that the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 of 2011 produced an unanticipated long term economic damage and a permanent emotional harm on the mightiest nation in the world.  After the attacks and partially as a result of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq—though also as a result of the Bush tax breaks and the negative effect on the attacks on the domestic and world economy—the government budget surplus turned into a deficit and the economic decline began. Americans were consumed by fear, allowing government policies that undermined the country’s long term security and stability, and producing reactions by its political elite that transformed a terrorist attack into a modern sacred war between Christianity (represented by the U.S.) and Islam (represented by Al Qaeda, or in the eyes of many uninformed Americans, by anyone who looked Muslim). 


More recently, the apparent unstoppable economic rise of China has been an obsession of an American media that has discovered that fear makes for high television ratings. True, when contrasting the two countries, China moves forward while the U.S. is going nowhere. Even worse, some political debates in the U.S. are about irrelevant and inconsequential issues. The unfounded claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus is illegitimately serving as President (the so called birther issue) best exemplifies the distance between what America needs and what some of political leaders are ready to offer.


There are more Americans disapproving than approving the way President Obama is doing his job. High unemployment, rising costs of gasoline and the military intervention in Libya have combined to hurt the president’s popularity. Yet, Republicans have not seized the moment. Polls show that none of the Republican presidential hopefuls is sufficiently attractive even to rightwing voters. The surprising rise of Donald Trump as one of the three Republican front runners has uncovered the weakness of other Republicans. Trump is also appropriately seen as favoring President Obama’s reelection campaign. After all, Trump will more likely damage other Republican candidates than credibly mount a challenge to Obama’s reelection effort.  However, Trump’s rise might also be explained because his public persona is associated with the idea of success. Trump has come to embody an attractive message, that America’s best days are ahead, not past. True, his embracement of the birther issue will inflict damage to his own credibility. However, the fact that Trump rose to prominence so quickly within the Republican camp should shed light on what Americans want in their politicians, the ability to present a message of hope and resurgence.


The U.S. has many strengths, more than what many Americans seem able to see today. The budget deficit is still manageable. With costly reforms—and considerable sacrifice—the U.S. can restore its greatness and consolidate its dominant leadership position in the world.  A tax reform that reduces spending and increases revenue can allow the government to bring the deficit under control and make the key investments in infrastructure and human capital needed to make America more competitive.  The United States economy has solid economic fundamentals. A credible road map can be agreed upon to make the country stronger and more competitive in the world. However, the American political class needs to rise up to the occasion. Otherwise, the U.S. will gradually become the land of the scared and the home of the afraid.