Can Americans handle the truth?
Our political leaders and presidential candidates apparently don't think so, which explains why they had rather pander to voters than talk honestly about the hard choices and difficult challenges that the nation faces at home and abroad.
According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 82 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. I suspect their pessimism has more to do with the country's immediate miseries — higher gasoline and food prices, home foreclosures, a plunging real estate market, the long war in Iraq and growing economic anxieties — than it does with the more difficult, long-term challenges we have been slow to respond to because of a lack of political will.
Except for the war, health care and to some extent climate change, this year's presidential candidates have mostly focused on small issues that lend themselves to political pandering. Not one of them has summoned Americans to sacrifice for the common good. Instead of talking about the need to wean ourselves from foreign oil, Hillary Clinton and John McCain called not for energy conservation but for a federal gasoline tax holiday. To his credit, Barack Obama said it was a terrible idea.
Unfortunately, Obama did join Clinton in demagogic attacks on free-trade in competing for Rust Belt votes. Instead of telling American workers the truth — that the world is changing and they have to learn to compete in a global economy — Clinton and Obama lurched toward protectionism, vowing to re-negotiate NAFTA and other free-trade agreements. Shame on them for creating false hopes.
Politicians like to tell voters that America's best days are still ahead. Maybe they are, but unless our leaders confront people with the painful choices facing the country, worse days could be in front of us.
We haven't heard much from the politicians on how they would address the approaching spending crisis in Social Security and Medicare. They know there are basically only three choices for fixing Social Security: raise taxes, cut benefits, or both. Obama would consider the first option; Clinton would create a blue-ribbon commission to study the problem, although it is not clear what good that would do since she has ruled out all three options. If nothing is done, these federal entitlement programs will eventually bankrupt the government.
Local and state elected officials are no better. They know underfunded pension costs for public employees are a ticking time bomb, but they rarely acknowledge the problem. The Washington Post recently reported that pensions and health care costs for police officers, teachers and millions of other public employees across the country "are facing a shortfall that could soon run into trillions of dollars.''
Rather than telling taxpayers the truth, state and local officials use tricky accounting techniques to mask the full extent of the pension crisis they are facing. Something has to give. Local and state governments will either have to cut their pension costs or impose hefty tax increases to fund them.
Meanwhile, Americans would do well to pay attention to trends in the rest of the world that some believe will spell an end to the era of American dominance and redistribute political and economic power around the globe.
Our future will be shaped, for better or worse, by how we respond to the economic and political changes sweeping the world. This is no time for Americans to turn inward, but there are signs we are doing just that. You see it in our post-9/11 security paranoia, in the Democrats' protectionist trade posture, in Republican demands for tighter immigration controls, and in the Bush administration's arrogance and unilateral approach to foreign policy.
In his new book, The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria writes that while the United States will remain a military superpower, "in every other dimension — industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural — the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.'' He cites the rise of China and India and the emergence of dozens of smaller countries and regions as major players in the world economy.
Instead of fearing this broad shift of power, writes Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, America should position itself to play the role not of a dominant world power but of a "global broker,'' forging political and economic relationships with countries and taking the lead on such issues as climate change.
The irony of all this, he writes, is that the emerging countries are to a large extent practicing what America has been preaching.
"For 60 years,'' Zakaria explains, "American politicians have traveled around the world pushing countries to open their markets, free up their politics, and to embrace trade and technology. We have urged peoples in distant lands to take up the challenge of competing in the global economy . . . We counseled them to be unafraid of change and learn the secrets of our success. And it worked: the natives have gotten good at capitalism.''
But at the same time, he adds, America is "becoming suspicious of the very things we have long celebrated — free markets, trade, immigration and technological change."
The next president can help America find its place in a rapidly changing, interconnected world if he keeps his eyes on the big picture out there. Voters should ask themselves which candidate has the vision, courage and humility to meet that challenge.
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is email@example.com.