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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

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