The age of reduced expectations

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Article Highlights

  • There is a growing perception that things are not getting better, and that the future holds more peril than promise.

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  • Millions of Americans feel exactly this way today, with less and less hope for the future.

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  • An America whose military commitments aren’t credible is not the bulwark of democracy we know.

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In a few days, the U.S. State Department undoubtedly will reopen all of the 22 U.S. embassies and posts it closed last weekend across North Africa and the Middle East. In response to intercepted al Qaeda communications discussing a potential attack, the Obama administration shuttered the diplomatic missions, most likely to avoid a repeat of the Benghazi disaster of 2012. The move was widely praised on both sides of the political aisle, and indeed, protecting American lives is the primary responsibility of the U.S. government.

Yet amid the hosannas for the supposedly proactive response by the State Department, raising the drawbridges on nearly two dozen U.S. installations abroad sends a rather different message from simple prudence. It is an unmistakable sign of America’s shrinking presence both at home and abroad. The message is broad, but simple: Expect less. Less security. Less economic opportunity. Less capable governance. Less hope. After four and a half years, Barack Obama’s “yes, we can” has ushered in an age of reduced expectations.

Liberals will undoubtedly pounce on the lines above, claiming they are typical right-wing hyperbole, conflating necessary security measures abroad with dishonest calumny about conditions at home. Conservatives always claim the sky is falling, they complain, making it impossible to solve problems in a collegial, bipartisan way.

Leaving aside such a profoundly one-sided view of the reasonableness of the current crop of Democratic leaders in Congress (or President Obama himself), and even admitting that, yes, conservatives tend to have more skeptical dispositions, I defy anyone on the left to prove that there is some unrecognized swelling sentiment of optimism pervading America today. Instead, there is a growing perception that things are not getting better, and that the future holds more peril than promise. This is the consistent finding in the “right direction-wrong direction” polls posted by Real Clear Politics: Americans think the country is on the wrong track, and by a 32-point margin, according to the latest poll average.

Our collective psyche is neatly summed up by a mid-19th century Japanese phrase: naiyu gaikan, or “troubles within, dangers without.” Popular in the decades before the fall of the 250-year old Tokugawa shogunate, the phrase summed up the feeling of angst and helplessness at a system that was failing both domestically and in foreign affairs.

Millions of Americans feel exactly this way today, with less and less hope for the future. Call it malaise, call it pessimism: It will affect everything from investment to consumption to volunteerism to foreign policy. This is not to claim that America will totally withdraw from the world or collapse in an economic depression, but there is a grave and growing danger that we will settle for a future of reduced opportunity, less fulfillment, and greater dependence on a clearly dysfunctional government to somehow protect us and provide the chances that we once took for granted in a free-market society.

A country of 320 million people is too complex to reduce to generalities or specifics. America’s innovative entrepreneurs, financiers, lawyers and lobbyists are doing ever better, as suggested by anecdotal evidence of top-line real estate prices in New York, California, and Washington, D.C., and headlines about bonuses at firms like Goldman Sachs. The stock market, too, has hit record highs in recent months, making it seem like nothing very serious happened way back in 2008. And the jobs are slowly coming back.

But scratch just under the surface and things don’t look nearly so rosy. Americans know that $16 trillion of U.S national debt is a figure that will simply never be reduced or eliminated, and that we are a bankrupt country, despite the fact that we can continue to print money to keep ourselves afloat. They see taxes going up, if not always in Washington, usually at the state or local level. No one quite understands how Obamacare will work, but many will see their premiums rise, and fear that the implementation process will ultimately upend their ability to choose their doctors and medical plans. They see a major city like Detroit declare bankruptcy and know that others, and maybe even states like California or Illinois, are likely not far behind.

Blue-collar America is struggling. Median income has stagnated over the past decade, more for the lower class than the better educated. And there’s no end in sight: Some economists say the trend may last into the 2020s, putting paid to many hopes for better housing and education, early retirement, or simply having something left over after monthly mortgages and bills. Talk to young people just starting their careers, and their sense of fragility is overpowering.

But those are fears for those who at least have jobs: The broad U-6 underemployment rate in the United States is estimated to be as high as 14 percent, while more than 4 million Americans have been out of work for over six months and 11.5 million are searching for jobs. Just as disquieting is that the total labor force participation rate is at its lowest in post-World War II history; simply put, Americans are giving up looking for work, and a disproportionate number of them are healthy, working-age males, who used to be the backbone of the labor market.

At the same time, the Pew Research Center calculates that a record 21.6 million young adults aged 18 to 31 are living with their parents, due to college debt, lack of work, low wages, housing prices, and the like. Some of that is due to America’s marriage rate, which is at its lowest in a century, according to researchers at Bowling Green State University. That, of course, affects the national birth rate, which also hit record lows in 2011 (and continues to drop for those under 25 years of age). Morbidly, America’s suicide rate has jumped, rising 30 percent between 1999 and 2010, but especially among men in their 50s.

None of these statistics is evidence of a healthy society.

So how is any of that connected to America’s closing of embassies abroad due to terrorist threats? It is the same sense of shrinking horizons. After a dozen years of warfare, and after the president assures us that our wars in the Middle East are over, we have to bar the doors and windows on our diplomatic residences abroad due to region-wide terror threats. Four years of President Obama’s diplomatic outreach to the Muslim world results in the murder of our ambassador in Libya and the murder of other diplomats in Afghanistan. Large swaths of the Islamic world continue to hate Americans, even if it is impolite to say so in D.C.

The old adversaries haven’t gone away – far from it. China has developed a military that may not be qualitatively superior to America’s, but is by far the most modern opponent we’ve faced since the fall of the Soviet Union. As it rises, China is growing far more assertive in Asia, threatening U.S. allies and partners over territorial disputes, and refusing to help curb North Korea or Iran’s nuclear program. And Beijing evidently had little fear that allowing NSA leaker Edward Snowden to escape to Moscow would have repercussions for its relations with Washington.

Smaller threats also fester and grow. Iran has used the past four years to come within spitting distance of building a nuclear bomb, a move that would profoundly destabilize the Middle East. North Korea continues to rattle its sabers without consequence.

And while all of this is happening, the average American understands that the Obama administration and Congress have found common ground on one thing: the need to dramatically slash America’s defense budget, cutting Army troops and Marines, floating the smallest Navy since World War I, and temporarily grounding one-third of the Air Force’s entire combat air fleet. The coming cuts are so severe, in the neighborhood of $1 trillion over 10 years (on top of another $400 billion of belt-tightening in Obama’s first term) that even the editorial board of the Washington Post warned of the dangers in hollowing out America’s ability to defend itself or maintain our power abroad.

The American people understand what is happening. They see that the murder of an American ambassador goes unpunished, and that the White House is far more interested in obfuscating what actually happened in Benghazi than in tracking down anyone responsible. They see an America that refuses to stand up to Chinese cyberattacks or industrial espionage. And they know that we are cutting our military capability while our chief rivals are expanding theirs.

No one thinks that we will collapse tomorrow, or that our military will suddenly be at risk of losing a war against Syria. But ask about America’s power abroad in a decade, or a generation, and more serious doubt creeps in. Same for the economy. An America whose military commitments aren’t credible is not the bulwark of democracy we know. A country in which wages are stagnant for over a decade is not the same economy that drew millions of immigrants to our shores for centuries.

What people feel down deep in their gut is that life for the foreseeable future will be more uncertain, less stable than what they’ve known. That hard work may not be enough to ensure their family’s future. That government is both increasingly dysfunctional but also their only hope. That enemies still lurk over the oceans and that we may not be strong enough to deal with them. It is a vision of a country shrunken in size and pride, and the feeling of helplessness that most individuals feel against huge, impersonal forces that direct their fate.

Barack Obama once proclaimed the “audacity of hope.” How much more audacious must one now be to have hope for a shrunken country in an age of reduced expectations.

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About the Author

 

Michael
Auslin
  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.


    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.


    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.


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