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“Have we gone soft?” pondered Thomas Connell, a cross-cultural communications consultant and instructor at the Washington-based National Defense University. “Physically speaking, it’s inarguable.”

Nicknamed “Dr. Culture,” Mr. Connell teaches foreign nationals about American mores and habits. His students invariably marvel at two things: (a) The number of diabetes-equipment ads on American television; (b) The sheer size - read: abject tubbiness - of their red, white and blue hosts.

“If we’re out of shape, we’re out of discipline, and that affects the mental side as well,” Mr. Connell said. “We’ve gotten soft in education, soft politically, soft in our attitudes. We value being smart too little and being stupid far too much. These days, internationals want to modernize without Westernizing.

“Many of the dynamics that made us great are still here. But it’s almost as if we’ve become the ‘whatever’ nation.”

The Great Softening?

Once upon a time, the Whatever Nation produced the atom bomb and the Marshall Plan. We built the Hoover Dam. We responded to Sputnik with the moon landing, the greatest moment in the histories of both human achievement and in-your-face one-upmanship. We invented the microchip and the beer cozy - and while lesser nations suffered the dual indignities of lukewarm beef patties and soggy lettuce and tomato, our esteemed, envied temples of industry and innovation birthed the McDLT.

That was then.

In the here and now, we’ve botched Katrina and Iraq. Bungled the stimulus and Solyndra. Blown any hope of a college football playoff or putting Casey Anthony behind bars.We build bridges to nowhere.We no longer send astronauts into space with our own rockets - instead, we rely on Russia - yet seem to open new cupcake boutiques faster than a neutrino in a European (not American) particle accelerator.

“Softness is everywhere, no doubt about it,” Mr. Seibold said. “In business, in personal life, there’s a pervasive sense of entitlement. We have the collective emotional maturity of a spoiled teenager. We know more about who is winning on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ than what’s going on in our government.”

Survey the economic indicators, and it’s easy to see why America needs a pep talk. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Unemployment is high and stubborn. Wages have stagnated since the 1970s.Standard and Poor’s recently downgraded our national credit rating for the first time ever. According to Foreign Affairs, our federal debt as a percentage of GDP rose from 32 percent to 67 percent from 2001 to 2009 - a borrowing binge to match the now-busted balance sheets of state and local governments, not to mention our tapped-out private households. From 1999 to 2009, our share of global GDP fell from 23 percent to 20 percent while China’s increased from 7 percent to 13 percent - putting China on course to surpass our economic output by 2016.

“From the perspective of innovation, we are losing our competitive edge,” Nicholas Ashford, a professor at MIT and co-author with Ralph Hall of “Technology, Globalization and Sustainable Development: Transforming the Industrial State,” said.“Money has been chasing money in this country. But it has not been chasing innovation.”

Geopolitically, America still retains the means to bomb just about anyone we deem threatening. Our military remains hard. Question is, can we afford it? Our frustrating, inconclusive occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq - deposing Saddam Hussein, good; inadvertently strengthening Iranian influence, bad - are winding down largely because they cost too much darn money, a trend that shows no sign of abating. According to the Congressional Research Service, the cost of supporting an active-duty service member increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2005.

The leader of the Free World seems increasingly OK with leading from behind. At this rate, the World’s Policeman will soon be reduced to manning guard shacks at the front and rear gates to Fortress America.

On the cultural front, New York Times columnist-cum-zeitgeist tea-leaf decoder David Brooks frets that America has become a “Genteel Nation” - read: squeezably soft - by abandoning practical, productive pursuits for pleasant, enlightened ones. Put another way: We’ve become a country of communications and leisure studies majors, falling behind in an engineering and computer science world.

On the right, there’s the tea party sense that the poor and unemployed lack accountability and that the Occupy movement is the province of spoiled whiners. As Herman Cain put it, “If you don’t have a job, and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”

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