Opinion

When greatness slips away


Published: Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 2:52 p.m.

We've blown so many enormous opportunities over the past several years. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when most of the world had lined up in support of the United States, President George W. Bush had the chance to lead a vast cooperative, international effort to combat terrorism and lay the groundwork for a more peaceful, more secure world.

He blew it with the invasion of Iraq.

In the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we had not just the chance but an obligation to call on our best talent to creatively rebuild the historic city of New Orleans.

That could have kick-started a major renovation of the nation's infrastructure and served as the incubator for a new and desperately needed urban policy.

Despite Bush's vow of "bold action" during a carefully staged, nationally televised appearance in the French Quarter, we did nothing of the kind.

The collapse of the economy in the Great Recession gave us the starkest, most painful evidence imaginable of the failure of laissez-faire economics and the destructive force of the alliance of big business and government against the interests of ordinary Americans.

Radical change was called for. (One thinks of Franklin Roosevelt raging against the "economic royalists" and asserting that "we need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer.")

But there has been no radical change, only caution and timidity and more of the same.

The royalists remain triumphant, and working people are absorbing blow after devastating blow.

More than 1.2 million of the long-term jobless are due to lose their unemployment benefits this month.

The oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, as horrible as it has been, was yet another opportunity.

In his address to the nation from the Oval Office recently, President Barack Obama could have laid out a dramatic new energy policy for the U.S., calling on every American to do his or her part to help us escape the insidious, nonstop destruction that is the result of our obsessive reliance on fossil fuels.

He chose not to.

As a nation, we are becoming more and more accustomed to a sense of helplessness. We no longer rise to the great challenges before us. It's not just that we can't plug the oil leak, which is the perfect metaphor for what we've become. We can't seem to do much of anything.

The city of Detroit is using federal money to destroy thousands upon thousands of empty homes, giving in to a sense of desperation that says there is no way to rebuild the city so let's do the opposite: Let's destroy even more of it. Lots more of it.

How is it possible that we would let this happen?

We've got all kinds of sorry explanations for why we can't do any of the things we need to do. The Democrats can't get 60 votes in the Senate. Our budget deficits are too high. Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck might object.

Meanwhile, the greatness of the United States, which so many have taken for granted for so long, is steadily slipping away.

Bob Herbert writes for The New York Times.

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