“I think the magic is over.” That's what French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently said about the United States' global reputation.
It's never been a great idea to rely on the assessments of French politicians, but the daily news coming out of the U.S. -- in terms of our image overseas and beyond -- does indeed seem bleak.
Oil has climbed over $100 a barrel. Gas is nearing $4 a gallon. Gold is at $1,000 an ounce -- a telltale sign the public is losing trust in paper money, stocks and bonds.
Housing prices still slump. Foreclosures are on the rise. The huge Wall Street firm Bear Stearns nearly collapsed before being bought out for a fraction of its former worth.
Seven years ago, the Euro was worth about 90 cents. Now it's soared past $1.50. Staples like wheat and corn cost more than at anytime in our history. Foreign creditors hold $12 trillion in U.S. government securities, the result of decades of staggering trade deficits.
We are still fighting to secure constitutional governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran, contrary to headlines drawn from the recent National Intelligence Estimate, is likely still betting the U.S. can't prevent it from getting the bomb.
No one knows how many illegal aliens are in the United States --11, 15, 18 million? -- only that we can neither go on with open borders nor apparently close them.
Only a third of the public approves of the Bush administration. The ratings of Congress are even lower.
Our self-proclaimed reformers turn out to have feet of clay. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer made a career of taking on Wall Street greed -- in between spending laundered money on high-priced call girls.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., promised a new politics of racial healing and political honesty. Yet despite eloquent speeches, he still cannot adequately explain why for 20 years he attended and subsidized a church whose fiery preacher spewed the worst sort of racial hatred and divisiveness.
So, is the “magic over"?
Not quite yet. The remedies for our current maladies require a moderate curbing of our extravagant lifestyle and voracious consumption. Given the vast size of the U.S. economy, we could easily restrain spending and begin paying off our debts at a rapid clip. Inflation and unemployment are still relatively low.
Over ninety-four percent of Americans with home mortgages meet their monthly obligations. More Americans own homes than ever before. More immigrants seek out America than any other nation.
We have not been hit by terrorists in over six years. And, slowly, both Afghanistan and Iraq are showing political progress and declining violence, despite recent suicide bombings.
In a relative sense, our problems pale in comparison to our past world wars and depressions, or those of our current competitors.
Unlike the United States, which is funding democratic change in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia and China offer only brutal solutions to quench Islamic separatists in Chechnya and Xinjiang province. Neither country can square economic progress with human rights. Both have polluted their natural environment in ways inconceivable here.
Meanwhile, a shrinking Europe is disarmed in a dangerous world and can't assimilate its growing minorities.
We are still the world's third-largest petroleum producer with vast amounts of untouched oil. We have the world's largest coal reserves. Americans could use coal and nuclear power to generate most of our electrical needs and to charge hybrid electric cars.
Our universities remain the world's best, and we lead the world in cutting-edge technological innovation.
American elections are more wide open than ever before. Our next president will either be the first septuagenarian (when taking office), woman or African-American in the job.
America remains a meritocracy where no one is above the law. Unlike so many other places, success is predicated more on ability than race, class, tribe, religion or gender.
So while we exhibit outward symptoms of sickness, our inner constitution -- the real barometer of the health of a civilization -- is sound.
More importantly, there is a growing sense that Americans want to sacrifice to ensure our pre-eminence. Many conservatives are accepting that they can't just cut taxes without spending limits. And many liberals are seeing that more federal programs mean more dependency and debt for our children.
Divisive race and gender identity politics are becoming tired. A multiracial America in a strife-filled world works. So why copy the tribal separatism and divisions of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda or most of the Middle East?
Because the United States is so huge, free, wealthy and dynamic, we can cause enormous problems overnight. But by the same token, we can curb these excesses quickly. The solution to so many of the hopeless headlines is entirely in our hands.