“This is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft, and we didn’t have the same competitive edge that we needed.” - President Obama
Go ahead: write off Mr. Obama’s recent, much-discussed comment to a Florida television station as unhelpful nagging. A pass-the-buck excuse for the nation’s ongoing economic woes. A slap in the handsome, chiseled face of American Exceptionalism, the historical and philosophical proposition that We the People are, to put it humbly, totally awesome.
Fact is, dismissing the Scolder-in-Chief is a lot easier than stepping on the scale, looking in the mirror and conceding that the president just might be on to something.
Has America gone soft? Seen our once formidable, can-do economic, cultural and geopolitical six-pack abs devolve into a can’t-be-bothered muffin top of belt-buckle-busting, Snuggie-swaddled goo?
“No question about it,” said Steve Seibold, the author of “177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class.”
“In many respects, we’ve lost our way, presuming superiority without feeling we have to prove it,” said Michael Farr, a CNBC contributor and president of the investment firm Farr, Miller and Washington.
“We were a frontier people, a founding people,” said Alan Dowd, a foreign-policy writer and senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, an Indianapolis-based public policy foundation. “We forged an empire of our own, defeated European and Asian totalitarians, then faced down Moscow. Now what? Has there been a softening? I think it’s a fair question.”
Signs of our cultural anxiety abound: a vague but creeping sense of unease, if not (yet) a red cardigan-clad, President Carter-esque crisis of confidence. From the political right, it’s the conviction that America’s inherent entrepreneurial drive and bootstrappin’ ethos are being smothered by the loving, terminal embrace of the Nanny State, creating an entitlement society of Big Government teat-suckling sheeple; from the left, it’s the notion that the nation is too materialistic, overfed, dumbed-down and distracted by bread and circuses (and Fox News) to tackle large-scale problems requiring collective effort - for instance, climate change - let alone halt the looting of the country by a system-gaming cabal of wealthy corporate and political interests.
Looking abroad, we’re afraid that other nations - most notably, a rising China and a nuke-hungry Iran - are emboldened, aggressive and looking to clean our clocks. Perhaps the title of a recent best-selling book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman detailing how the rest of the world is surpassing America in education, infrastructure and innovation says it best: “That Used To Be Us.”
Looking inward, another best-seller - “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” - castigated American parents for not pushing their children hard enough, touching off a flurry of hand-wringing that our Asian competitors not only produce more efficient midsize sedans and flat-screen televisions, but also more efficient human beings.
In California - once America’s sun-splashed Tomorrowland, now choked by debt and political dysfunction, plus two installments of the “Real Housewives” franchise - a 30-something man named Stanley Thorton Jr. lives as an “adult baby,” using disability payments to pay for wipes and rash cream. Why? Because he wears diapers. By choice.
In Arkansas, an 11-year-old football star recently was prohibited from tallying more than three touchdowns per game - otherwise, according to his school principal, the gifted boy would score “almost every time he touched the ball.” As if that’s a bad thing.
In a recent Time magazine cover story, veteran political scribe Joe Klein wrote that during a tour of the Midwest and Texas, the vast majority of the people he spoke with were in “general agreement that Americans had gotten soft” and had “a sense that the unprecedented affluence of the past 60 years had caused a certain lassitude, that we weren’t working as hard as we used to.”
Meanwhile, in the trendier parts of Brooklyn - about as far from the heartland as, say, Paris - hipsters have embraced a neo-lumberjack aesthetic of flannel shirts and Brawny Man-before-his-metrosexual-makeover beards. Umm … compensating much?