As I wander along the Atlantic seacoast this holiday season, chatting with folks at their summer play, I sense we have arrived at a kind of tipping point in the American mood.
Whether it be in Newport, R.I., or Duxbury, Mass., or towns along the craggy, breathtakingly beautiful, coast of Maine, there is a new awareness of the multiplicity of challenges – both domestic and international – that must be met.
Americans are taking calmly such apocalyptic predictions as Al Gore's this month. Speaking of the energy problem, he declared: "The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk." But higher gas and food prices; a slump in the real estate market; a deflated dollar; a skittish stock market; layoffs at airlines, banks, and newspapers; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and an erratic, nuclear-pursuing regime in Iran, have nevertheless combined to produce a "perfect storm" cloud of concern over traditional summer fun.
In Maine and neighboring states, there has been a sharp drop in toll and tax revenue as tourists from other regions in the United States stay home. The chatter I hear from neighboring restaurant tables may just as likely be in German, Japanese, Thai, or some other non-English language as visitors from other lands find the cheap American dollar a bargain. A Dutch visitor who pays $9.50 a gallon for gasoline at home is not fazed by $4-plus for a gallon in the US. Canadians, who have long simmered under a weak Canadian dollar, are basking on Maine beaches in sunny enjoyment of what to them is now a weaker US dollar.
For many residents of Maine, this has long been a state on the edge. While there are pockets of affluence in coastal towns such as Bar Harbor, Camden, Boothbay, and Portland, there are great swaths of the state where homemade signs are testimony to a sturdy effort to make ends meet: "camp firewood" for sale, strawberries in July and blueberries in August, foot massages, Indian flute lessons, and other ingenious ideas to provide services and products in a state dependent on timber, fishing, and tourism. Today, officials warn of a likely 20 percent increase in the cost of heating fuel this winter. Trucks and SUVs line dealer lots in unsold platoons. In an effort to stimulate lagging sales, one boat dealer offers $2,500 of gas with a new purchase.
The hardy citizens of Maine will survive all this, of course, as will other Americans who, through the history of their nation, have traditionally rallied in the face of even temporary adversity. But the changing mood does suggest a recognition that Americans will need to adapt to new conditions that certainly seem destined at home, and probably abroad.
Clearly this has significant implications for the two main presidential contenders, John McCain and Barack Obama. Both promise change, but with divergent agendas, on differing schedules, and with different levels of experience.
At home, there must be sharply less reliance on imported oil, a need that has been evident for decades but has not been treated as a challenge of urgency by presidents or Congresses either Republican or Democratic.
Problems of similar gravity confront the future of Social Security and Medicare. Faced with governmental neglect, wealthy private businessmen such as T. Boone Pickens and Peter G. Peterson are promising millions of personal dollars in campaigns to direct attention to such problems. Mr. Pickens is promoting wind power. Mr. Peterson is tackling financing for Social Security and Medicare. Meanwhile, Melinda and Bill Gates are directing some of their billions to healthcare at home and abroad.
In an era of globalization, US domestic problems are inextricably interwoven with international implications and consequences. Global warming, energy supply, free trade, currency management, the campaign to bring stability to the Islamic world and contain terrorism, along with myriad other challenges, all require international negotiation and solution. Thus Americans seem increasingly comfortable with the six-nation effort to dismantle North Korea's nuclear-weapons program and multilateral diplomacy to try to block Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The US remains the world's most formidable economic and military power. But it must increasingly recognize the newly gathering influence of India, China, and Brazil. Individual Americans seem sturdily aware this summer of adjustments they must make due to changing times.
In a perverse kind of way, soaring gas prices have become the catalyst for focus on the No. 1 issue confronting a new president and Congress: What will be the fuel and from whence will it come, that will run the great American engine in the 21st century and beyond?