It’s tempting to join the chorus of naysayers who claim the worst is yet to come for America. They point to a bevy of serious problems such as economic stagnation, botched wars in the Middle East, and the churlish chaos of Congress to make their point.
And their argument is reasonable. On the economic front, the United States has not fully emerged from the Great Recession. Unemployment has yet to recede past seven percent, labor force participation remains low at 62.8 percent, and American productivity has grown at a painstakingly slow .7 percent over the last few years.
In the realm of global leadership, the Obama Administration’s blurry red lines projected weakness on Syria, the post-withdrawal vacuum in Iraq has devolved into sectarian war, and the U.S. faces a serious challenge in handling a distinct yet worryingly similar situation in Afghanistan.
Even our system of government—America’s most important export—seems to have flailed. In light of government shutdowns, credit rating downgrades, and political extremism, congressional approval ratings have fallen to single digits. Likewise, the President’s approval rating remains down in the dumps after a failed rollout of Healthcare.gov.
The naysayers make valid arguments without pointing to more significant issues like the failure to enact effective education, immigration, and cybersecurity policy. However, as this year ends and 2014 begins, there is a stronger yet case for American optimism; one that highlights how truly lucky we are to live in America.
Despite significant risks, the American economy is beginning to poke its head out again. In 2014 American businesses will grow, catalyzed by new energy extraction techniques like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that have made the U.S. a net petroleum exporter. Whereas in 2009 only three of the world’s top 10 largest firms were American, today that number is nine.
American families, having shed roughly 20 percent of household debt since 2007, will spend more money, sending stock prices higher and increasing bank loans. If the Fed, under Janet Yellen, successfully tapers bond purchases without scaring the pants off U.S. industry or stymying growth, economic expansion will increase and unemployment will likely fall as 2 million jobs are added. All in all, the U.S. is expected to increase growth to 2.5 – 3 percent in 2014, which will account for a larger share of global growth than will China.
On the national security front the risks are abundant. Instability in Afghanistan and Iraq poses serious threats to American safety; unenforced red lines may have damaged U.S. credibility on chemical weapons, while rising tensions in the Pacific will require the deft touch of careful diplomacy.
But the U.S. has made gains on containing the greatest risk to American security: a nuclear detonation on American soil. The recent nuclear deal with Iran, if successful, will prevent one of the primary state sponsors of terrorism from developing mushroom cloud deterrence. It may also prevent a Middle East nuclear arms race, if well enforced. In the event that Iran violates its obligations under the agreement, the U.S. and her ally Israel will have a clearer justification than ever before to preemptively strike Iranian nuclear facilities should they deem that strategy necessary to prevent proliferation.
Likewise, the 2010 strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, although not sufficient, will decrease the threat of nuclear proliferation and the risk of terrorists obtaining the bomb. Serious nuclear threats remain in North Korea and Pakistan’s sophisticated nuclear weapons programs, however the U.S. and the world will be safer in 2014 because of these containment efforts.
Despite the massive impact economics and foreign policy can have on our lives, the greatest threat to American prosperity in 2014 comes from within. The U.S. government needs to get its house in order.
Specifically, Congress must stop threatening to shutdown the government over debt limit increases, and instead focus on long term, sustainable cuts to spending. The recent hostage taking has undermined confidence in the government (and in donkeys and elephants alike), while claiming economic casualties in the process.
However, these challenges do not mean the government has failed. On the contrary, it demonstrates that the government is protecting the rights of minorities and representing the will of the people. Many of the stalemates in Congress—healthcare, abortion, gun rights, taxes, and gay marriage—reflect serious disagreements (and statistical dichotomies) among the American public, for better or worse.
Granted, procedural delays such as filibusters and shutdowns are neither ideal nor necessarily productive. However, when Congress battles over issues still undecided in the public’s eyes, it shows that our government is alive and functioning.
As 2014 rolls around, serious challenges and significant risks remain ahead for America. Some of these will be tempered by good news, while others will obstinately persist as stumbling blocks on the path to a more perfect union.
But as we commemorate the World War I centenary this coming July, we have much to be thankful for and strong reasons to remain steadfast in optimism. Let us not forget that as we move forward.