WASHINGTON—American decline is the specter haunting our politics. This could be President Obama's undoing—or it could provide him with the opportunity to revive his presidency.
Fear of decline is an old American story. Declinism ran rampant in the late 1970s and early '80s. Stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, anxiety over Japan's then-commanding economy and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan all seemed to be symbols of a United States no longer in control of its destiny.
These apprehensions dissipated in the 1980s and, whatever the shortcomings of his policies, Ronald Reagan presided over a restoration of American morale. His 1984 "Morning in America" advertisement was politically brilliant but it was also a paean to a renewed American confidence.
George H. W. Bush followed, and he deserves great credit for his management of the Gulf War and the larger international transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton built on Bush's unpopular but necessary budget and restored the federal government's solvency while also serving as a careful steward of American influence and our image in the world. Charles Krauthammer, my columnist colleague, likes to refer to the 1990s as a "holiday from history," but the truth is that American power reached its zenith under Clinton. If that was a holiday, we need more vacations like it.
The current declinist sentiment arises from a widespread sense that in the first decade of the new millennium, our country squandered its international advantages, degraded its power with a long and unnecessary engagement in Iraq, wrecked the federal government's finances—and then saw its economy devastated by the worst financial crisis in 80 years. All this happened as China especially but also India began to challenge American pre-eminence. Americans feel something is badly wrong, and they are fully justified in their alarm.
Obama was elected for many reasons in 2008, but the country's underlying desire to reverse this sense of decline was central to his victory. Consider the emphasis in his posters on "Hope" and his "Change We Can Believe In" slogan. Whether by design or luck, the words "hope" and "believe" were precise responses to a spiritual crisis that the fears of lost supremacy engendered and explain the almost religious overtones of the Obama crusade.
Obama's biggest failures in his first two years lay in not fully grasping the opportunity this intimation of crisis created and in not appreciating that he was being asked to do more than fix the economy.
Of course undertaking practical and difficult measures to prevent economic collapse was Job One for Obama. And, yes, a goodly part of the nation's ill temper can be explained by miserable unemployment rates. Nonetheless, the rise of right-wing nationalist movements—and the tea party is as much about an assertive nationalism as it is about liberty—speaks to the country's longing for reassurance that it can maintain its leading position in the world. So does the insistent talk of his potential Republican rivals about America as an exceptional nation.
Obama sprinkles his rhetoric with talk about competing and winning in the 21st century, and he often suggests that China is doing things (in energy, mass transit and education, for example) that we are not. What's lacking is a coherent call for reform and restoration that is unapologetically patriotic and challenging.
He needs a narrative about American exceptionalism of his own. It would not pretend that the United States can occupy exactly the same position it enjoyed before China's rise. But his vision would insist that it is not our country's fate to be another of history's global powers that looked on helplessly as its influence and living standards declined.
Obama should be even more insistent on using the contest with China as a prod, much as John F. Kennedy used competition with the Soviet Union to "get the country moving again" domestically as well as overseas. There are more important priorities than preserving low tax rates for rich people, larger strategic concerns than Iraq or even Afghanistan, and more compelling political purposes than rote attacks on government or a fear of new immigrants, or Islam, or our diversity as a nation. And we will all be in this effort together only if all of our citizens know they will have an opportunity to share in a resurgent America's success.
For Obama, political renewal requires a bold and persistent campaign for national renewal. This would challenge his political opponents. But more importantly, it would challenge all of us.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.