Mort Zuckerman: We Must Reignite America's Can-Do Spirit

Partisan ideology stands in the way of reviving the American dream.

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What happened to the American Century? I mean, what happened to that faith in the nation's high purpose and sense of direction that animated successive generations of Americans? They surfed the good times, endured the bad times. They took in their stride spectacular achievements like going to the moon and building the superhighway and inventing such marvels as flight, the Internet, and the biological factories where bacteria were put to work to make new medicines. And these Americans clung to their values and their optimism through the long Depression and wars hot and cold. It is no exaggeration to say the world watched in awe with never a doubt that the American can-do spirit would prevail.

It was exhilarating to watch. Some 50 years ago, approximately 50 percent of the top quartile of the graduating classes of major Canadian universities sought to move to the United States, I among them. We were mesmerized and riveted by the dynamism, mobility, and opportunity in an American culture where it seemed that everyone, if he or she worked hard enough and had talent, could get ahead. To us, America was a country that cared much more about individuals being able to move up the socioeconomic ladder than where anybody started out or stood on it. I still love the land of my birth, but I was proud and thrilled to become an American citizen even though the immigration officer who processed my application asked if I would like to change my surname to a good American one. I was taken aback, and replied that I would like to change my name to Mark. He responded, "Mortimer Mark?" I said, "No, Mortimer Mark Benjamin Zuckerman." And that became my new legal name.

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How much dimmer are the outside views of America today and how deflated Americans themselves feel! Much of the public dialogue is about decline and recession and the dysfunctions of the political processes at all levels, so much so that even the normally buoyant people despair of our capacity to address the major issues of the day.

If there is one symptom of this breakdown of America's competency and pragmatism, it is the monumental failure to address the exploding deficits and debts. They not only burden the country today but will clearly weigh even more heavily in the future, given the demographics. Today we add $3 billion to our deficits every single day and have to borrow 39 cents of every dollar we spend, according to former Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairman of the bipartisan commission that was created by President Obama to try and get our deficits under control. Instead, the president walked away from their recommendations, even though, as Simpson said, "He was the one who asked us to write it [the report]."

We know that with 79 million baby boomers now beginning to retire, our fiscal future is as dire as our fiscal present. Our situation brings to mind a character in an Ernest Hemingway novel who was asked, "How did you go bankrupt?" "Two ways," he answered, "gradually and then suddenly." We know that given the way we are going, sooner or later the confidence of investors in America will be eroded to the breaking point and the bond and other global financial markets will force an adjustment "first gradually and then suddenly." Putting us on a path where our national economy and government revenues will be growing faster than the debts we owe is not austerity, it is sanity and leadership. And leadership is what we lack.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

We didn't get into this mess in the last three years. We have been wading deeper into it for a decade. I was hardly alone in worrying that we were going in the wrong direction: I began to bore myself by writing so often, as others did, about the escalating deficits that Vice President Cheney told us didn't matter. By the time Obama came to office amid a devastating financial meltdown not of his making, every unemployed worker, every bankrupt small business, every broken bank, every voter expected a truly dramatic change of course. True, the emergency rescue efforts begun by President Bush, and maintained by Obama, saved us from another Great Depression (though the Great Recession is no fun), and the banking stress tests helped still more to prevent a total collapse of confidence. Which makes it all the more baffling that the Obama administration should have abandoned confidence-building in favor of demonizing wealth creators. This is now an administration that demeans and discredits the private sector, and we now have a president who seems to worry more about his own political standing than about the country's future; who spends more of his time campaigning than governing; whose rhetoric seeks to exploit divisions by blaming the rich and positioning them against the rest, as if his government is not part of the problem. He has begun his re-election campaign by stirring up the emotions of fear, envy, and resentment, invoking a class warfare that threatens us all. How far we have come from the rhetoric of hope that was the hallmark of his first campaign. Hope is a good breakfast but a poor supper.