Voice

America's new crisis of confidence

Hope is the life's blood of American politics. This is a country built on the premise of boundless promise. The president certainly understood this when he entitled his autobiography The Audacity of Hope and his handlers understood it as they openly sought to emulate Ronald Reagan, the modern American political figure who understood this truth best. 

It is ironic then that in just a matter of months, Obama is more commonly associated with Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan. For Democrats, understanding why this is the case is the first step toward fixing a rapidly growing problem that may do what months ago seemed unthinkable: restoring the influence and competitiveness of the Republican Party. For Republicans, understanding why Obama is evoking the grim little man from Plains is key toward fulfilling their most critical goal: finding the next Ronald Reagan.

Clearly, by many measures Obama is nothing like Carter. He is not a micro-manager. He is vastly more charismatic. He is many times more gifted as a politician. His administration is yet to be riven by rivalries (although cracks in the façade of all-for-one discipline are beginning to be visible ... there is no more tell tale sign of cracks than leaks.)

What is it then? 

I think it has more to do with circumstances than personalities. Jimmy Carter was elected as a reaction to America's first major modern bout with national self-doubt. He came in the wake of a series of blows to the national psyche: Vietnam, Watergate, and oil shortages. During his presidency he was further associated with our seemingly aimless wandering through the swamps of stagflation and our impotence in the face of the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The old policy foundations of the Democratic Party dated back to the new deal and in the United States as in the U.K. at the time there were real questions about whether the welfare state could actually produce growth.

Carter, like Obama, entered offering hope primarily through distinguishing himself as a person from the man who had come to be reviled as a symbol of what was wrong with America, Richard Nixon. (Even though Nixon was not his opponent in the 1976 election.) In a way, he was selling a similar message to Obama: because I am a good man, we will return to good times. But Carter was unable to reverse the national mood -- breakthroughs in the Middle East and China were not enough. And he became a symbol of the "malaise" he sought to combat.

Now, America is facing the second such crisis of confidence of the Post World War II era. Failed policies in Iraq, seemingly intractable problems in Afghanistan, an economic crisis that looks like to drag on indefinitely, staggering deficits that stretch as far as the eye can see, a system that seems rigged to favor the rich while sapping hope from middle America and endless petty, partisan bickering in Washington have contributed to this.

This particular downturn in the national mood is accompanied by something else though, with which Carter really didn't have to contend: the ascent of new rivals and alternative models.  Last week's trip to China sent the message to many that the balance of power was shifting: they grow, they have cash reserves, they lend ... we borrow, we lose jobs to them, we fade. This was not the president's intent surely when he made the trip. He knows America remains vastly more economically and militarily powerful than China. He wanted to frame a new partnership. But it looked like he was, in the words of more than one analyst, going to see his banker.

This week the president turns his attention to India, showcasing another rapidly rising Asian power. Meanwhile, our closest traditional allies also seem to be floundering, underscoring the sense of the decline of the power structure that had emerged victorious from the Cold War. Japan has been on the canvas for over a decade. Europe last week cast a vote for irrelevance by picking a new president based on the criteria that he was the least objectionable man in the room. Virtually none of the European experts I know think the EU is currently on a trajectory that is strengthening its effectiveness or international role. Even our most dependable friendship, that with the U.K., is likely to weaken with the expect ascent to the PM's role of David Cameron, a conservative leader who is hardly a natural partner for Barack Obama.

Every day I sit with friends here in Washington or in New York, many highly successful, many with years of U.S. government experience, who say to me they are no longer investing in the United States or they feel that we are entering a period of irreversible decline -- persistent high unemployment, a chronically weakened dollar, limited resources forcing us to be much less active internationally.

There is a sense that no matter what Obama does, he will not be able to reverse these trends. In this respect we see his greatest similarity to Carter: both have demonstrated really bad timing, both seem to be victims of circumstance.

Of course, it is not over for Obama by any means. He might make progress. The economy may creep forward and unemployment may wind down a bit before 2012. Certainly, the president will focus, as he must, on doing everything he can to produce job growth next year. Paul Krugman has it exactly wrong in today's New York Times when he writes about "The Phantom Menace." He believes Obama's team mistaken feared the consequence of too big a stimulus ... thus not providing the big, manly stimulus we ultimately will need. He's wrong because there will undoubtedly be more stimulus next year. It won't be called a stimulus. It will be called a jobs bill or will come in the form of multiple initiatives to invest in infrastructure and jobs. There is zero chance any American president facing double digit unemployment and a mid-term election will fail to get out the checkbook to address the jobs issue. And that might help.

Unlike a growing number of friends and people I respect a lot, I still believe that there is a way that America can lead in the 21st Century ... but it will require a new vision, major new investments in infrastructure and education, courage to tackle the big fiscal burdens we face, a collaboration to reinvent the economy to lead in the industries of tomorrow from green energy to biotech, an openness to new global partnerships.

That said, for the first time in my life, the arguments of the doubters are actually gaining credence with me. I can see how America could be entering a period of irreversible decline in terms of its relative influence in the world. The deficits are too great. Demographics are creating a headwind. The economics of the global era are different from those of the industrial era and they don't favor us. It is certainly not promising when half of our economy is health care, financial services or government service. We may want a manufacturing base but it is hard to see how we will develop it.

Which is precisely where the next "Ronald Reagan" comes in. Whomever he or she is, they will offer a credible case that it can once again be morning in America. They will, like Reagan, have the advantage of their predecessor having taken the heat for many of the measures required to get out of the crisis. But they will also, like Reagan, have to offer an ideology suited to the times and to the American spirit.

While I don't know who this person is, I know two things. First, he or she won't be offering the stale, failed approaches of Ronald Reagan who restored hope in America by virtue of his personality but set in motion the forces that have led to the calamities with which we are dealing today. Next, they, like Reagan, will offer a formula that is not built around the novelty of the new man or woman in the White House, but rather is built around the energy and capabilities of the American people. (Neither, of which, excludes the possibility that Obama can be his own successor if he can go from talking about hope to actually restoring it.)

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

All the nus that are fit to print...

Nu is a great Yiddish word that doesn't actually mean anything at all and therefore can mean almost anything you want it to mean. Even if I weren't Jewish, as a writer I would therefore love the word. It offers so much freedom without any of the limitations that actual definitions impose. In this respect it is kind of like modern art. 

Most of the time that I hear it used in conversation it means "so?" This can be what one on-line dictionary describes as the Yiddish equivalent of "whassup?" Or it can be more penetrating, not just a question about what's going on but one about what it all means, something covering all the territory between "huh?" and "WTF?"

Consequently, for most inquiring minds, it can play an absolutely key role, especially for those minds trying to make sense of what's going on in the world. Because the problem with most so-called journalistic coverage of what's happening on the international stage is that it covers the news without actually addressing the nus.

Fortunately however, you have me. At least once a week anyway, while I am writing my book. (Which you could pre-order just like you did Sarah Palin's book if a.) My book had a title and b.) You had actually ordered Sarah Palin's book which I am absolutely certain you did not. Because if you were so inclined I am sure I would have lost you up there at the top somewhere between the word "Yiddish" and the word "whassup?")

This week was particularly rich with nus. And therefore, I thought I would take a moment or two and review some of them with you. You know, to help you grok it all.

So, here goes:

  • You've got to admire Eric Holder's intentions with regard to bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial in New York City. We are a nation of laws and our system of laws ought to be up to any test, even one this onerous. Personally, I believe it is. That said, this decision could haunt not just Holder but the country. If defense attorneys argue, as they will, that Mohammed was tortured repeatedly, it could create a profound moral and legal conundrum. Because by some definitions (including my own) he actually was tortured. And if it is concluded that this constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of U.S. constitutional precepts and international law, how will a judge handle it? How will the nation handle it? What do we value more, the law or justice? This is troubling territory and I believe it is politically treacherous ... but it is an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that we are once again committed to holding ourselves accountable to the highest standards in all circumstances. Were we to do this, for all his wrong-doing, Mohammed will be providing the United States with an opportunity of incalculable value.
  • When we look back on this past week, there will be a temptation to say it's the week that Barack Obama's Afghan policy deliberations jumped the shark. The fact that he had what was billed as a final discussion regarding four policy options that then produced his apparent rejection of the four and his call for a new set of ideas based on new parameters is being described as proof that his national security decision-making process is flawed. The fact that shortly afterwards two cables from the U.S. envoy in Kabul were leaked indicating his discomfort with sending in more troops so long as the Afghan government remains so unreliable didn't help the picture. But let's go beneath the surface a little...
  • Ok, the policy process is clearly flawed. But while we focus on what's broken now, it seems indisputable that the bigger breakdown was actually earlier this year when the administration originally defined its Afghan goals. While the process may be moving too slowly, fitfully and indecisively now, the greater problem is it moved too quickly with too little analysis back then. The Spring's policy was too based on campaign rhetoric and not sufficiently based on a careful assessment of the situation on the ground. It led McChrystal to his conclusions.  It put them in the box they are in now. 
  • The reality is that the outcome of Wednesday's meeting was actually the best one we could hope for. Because the president saw the options he had as flawed and shifted the emphasis...underscored later by press secretary Robert Gibbs ... to the exit strategy. He moved the discussion from "what we should do in Afghanistan" to where it should be: "what we can do in Afghanistan." And the only goal we can unquestionably meet is leaving. Think about it: to succeed in transforming the political situation on the ground we would need a commitment of many years, tens of thousands of more troops, tens of billions more dollars, a strong and cooperative ally in Kabul, committed international partners and an enemy that wasn't willing to wait us out. Of those conditions, none are likely to be met.  So figuring out how to exit while remaining positioned to deal with acute regional threats makes great sense. 
  • Which brings us to Washington's favorite parlor game of the week: figuring out who leaked the Eikenberry cables. The smart money is on the White House which sees these memos (which conveniently come from an ambassador who is a former on-the-ground commander in Afghanistan) as a way to justify its shift to new goals and to offset the orchestrated leaks from the McChrystal side. For those of you who bought in to the notion of the unprecedented discipline of the Obama team, sorry for the rude awakening.  While the focus should be on the ground war, Washington is once again engaged in a war of leaks.  This is not a weaknesses of the Obama Administration per se...it is more a fact of life given the culture of Washington.
  • On other fronts, the White House responded to 10.2 percent unemployment by calling for a jobs summit in December. This is one of the classic responses of a government that doesn't yet have a substantive plan for what to do. It is troubling that another such classic response is to appoint a czar. In both cases the focus is on creating the illusion of action.  Even the president seemed to recognize this when he tried to temper expectations for outcomes from the summit he announced.
  • The third in the great trinity of kabuki policy outcomes is to follow a meeting with the call for another meeting. According to recent statements from Secretary of State Clinton and Climate Negotiator Todd Stern, this seems to be where we are headed with the global climate talks despite their tireless efforts to the contrary. We'll try to hammer out something as a temporary face-saver for Copenhagen and then we'll resume doing what we're doing now ... trying to bridge the gap between the developed and the developing world with regard to setting emissions targets and figuring out who is going to pay for fixing what's broke.
  • On that front, read the provocative piece in Rolling Stone by Naomi Klein about the issue of "climate debt." Here's my partial solution. The developed world really does have to foot a goodly part of the bill for changes in the developing world related to climate...since we created the problem they did not. We also have limited resources and need to create jobs. Why don't countries like the United States create Green Trade Banks that provide cheap, long-term financing for green energy and climate related projects in the developing world ... provided that the projects involve content from the United States. We generate jobs. They get the capital and the technology we need.
  • Think the Chinese are going to lag the U.S. on adapting to climate? See this article on a new study from the government support CCICED arguing that China should cut its emissions 4 to 5 percent per year from now through 2050.
  • While college football still can't get its act together for a playoff system to pick a national champion...even with President Obama's strong endorsement of a change...we here at FP hear what the people want. That's why I will soon unveil the brackets for the year 2009 Chutzpah Bowl, pairing off category champions to see who deserves the title of world chutzpah champion. Among the contenders this week: Lloyd Blankfein for his "doing God's work" comment, Eliot Spitzer for going to Harvard this week to give a speech on ethics, Harvard for producing graduates like Eliot Spitzer and then hosting a conference on ethics, and CNN's lost but unlamented Lou Dobbs ... another Harvard grad ... for his years of Mexican-bashing despite the well-known fact that his wife is Mexican-American.  Unlike Lou, we're not xenophobic though so don't worry, the complete brackets will include plenty of non-American contenders. 
  • Finally, it tells you everything you need to know about American television that the guy Comcast is reportedly picking to head up NBC/Universal should its acquisition of the media company from GE go through is none other than Jeff Zucker, whose most recent stroke of genius was moving Jay Leno to prime time, a brainstorm that will rank right up with there with "New Coke" among the most bone-headed moves in American business history. 

Well, that's all the insight I can muster this week. Must get back to my book. If only I could figure out as Sarah Palin did how to sell hundreds of thousands of books to an audience primarily comprised of people who can't or won't read. It would take so much pressure off me...

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