America is at its best when feeling confident—and when feeling challenged. From confidence comes the bearing that has most won friends for America through its century of global strength: calm-tempered, thick-skinned, slow to be riled on small matters, quick to offer others a hand. The outlook is personified in film by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart; in diplomacy by George Marshall; and in politics, according to their respective supporters, by presidents as different as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.
From an awareness of challenge comes a determination to continually reinvent the American model and re-earn America’s prominence, rather than just coasting on its endowment, spoiled-brat style. The threat of falling behind or falling short powered the post-Sputnik race to the moon in the 1960s as well as the reinvigoration of the American tech industry in the years after Japan posed a challenge.
“We’re No. 1—and have to keep deserving it” has been both an attractive and a useful attitude for America. The current rise of “We’re No. 2” thinking threatens to be the reverse. It can highlight the resentful and self-pitying side of our character, while sapping the will to make changes that are clearly within the country’s reach.