The world economy at the moment is like the march of the strugglers.
In Europe, cross-border bickering stands in the way of pragmatic solutions that would keep the 17-nation eurozone intact and ease fears of a financial meltdown, which has been hammering the world's financial markets.
China is poised to become the world's biggest economy, yet it's hamstrung with a property bubble, an overdependence on exports, and a rigid political system that prioritizes stealing over innovation.
Other big emerging markets like India, Russia, and Brazil are promising, but it turns out they're more dependent on things going right in the developed world than they'd like to admit.
Then there's the United States, which is still the richest and most powerful nation in the world. Except it isn't acting that way.
With the world economy fraying at nearly every corner, it's a prime opportunity for America to assert the kind of global leadership other nations are looking for. This is what the United States did after World War II, and to some extent after the end of the Cold War. Yet the United States and most of its leaders in Washington seem addicted to myopia and incapable of stopping self-inflicted decline.
America has problems too, of course: too much debt, a ballooning welfare society we can no longer afford, and a workforce that's too tilted toward the past. But the United States also has tremendous advantages that it's not fully exploiting, such as a strong work ethic, a cultural capacity for starting over, and a creative class that continually comes up with the best ideas in the world.
Here's what a global leadership agenda in Washington might look like: Instead of attacking Mitt Romney and engaging in street-level political mudslinging, President Obama might insist that Washington show the rest of the world how to grow some backbone and work through tough political problems. Instead of putting off huge forthcoming decisions on tax hikes and spending cuts until the last second, he'd insist that Congress begin tackling those issues now, in full view of voters considering how to cast their ballots in November.
He'd propose a sincere growth agenda—not a cotton-candy version meant to mislead voters into thinking they can continue to get something for nothing—that is honest about making some sacrifices today because it will make the nation stronger in the future. Obama could also summon a bit of his soaring, preacherly rhetoric as he calls on the nation to shake off its selfish impulses and adopt a spirit of compromise for the sake of future generations.
Of course, it's unrealistic. Political opponents would attack Obama the moment he asked voters to sacrifice, and probably persuade enough gullible voters that no sacrifice is necessary. Republicans in Congress would have to admit that you can't cut taxes, increase defense spending, and somehow magically balance the budget. Democrats would have to accept cuts in cherished programs they've been fighting for for decades.
So instead of global leadership, America will have to settle for a presidential campaign characterized by sophistry and one-upmanship, while it becomes more and more likely that we'll follow Europe into the swamp instead of showing the way out. Maybe by then a few other nations will be better off, and willing to lend us a hand.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.