Is “Can Do” Gone?

From earliest days to modern times, Americans have been pleased to think of themselves as can-do people. Pioneers taming the wilderness, stupendous feats of production by American industry during World War II, astronauts walking on the moon—accomplishments like these sustained the self-image of a nation that prided itself on the capacity to do what it set its mind on.

Now, in perception at least, that seems to have changed. Whether the change will be lasting is impossible to say. But poll results and subjective impressions both point to the conclusion that national self-confidence has been shaken and the national mood darkened.

Among many causes and symbols of this turn of events, three currently stand out: the oil spill and resulting ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the discouraging drift of the war in Afghanistan, and the nagging persistence, at high human cost, of what’s come to be called the Great Recession. Herewith a word about each.

The blow to America’s can-do image delivered by the oil spill goes way beyond the spill itself. Ooze staining beaches and killing birds and marine life along an ever-widening swath of the Gulf Coast undermines Americans’ historic assumption that, when worse came to worst, government would have a solution to every problem, together with a concomitant American faith in technology as a miracle-worker.

Thus, the largest and most powerful lesson of the BP oil disaster so far may be that even though we have the technological capability of digging oil wells a mile under the ocean surface, technology had no clear notion what to do when the fail-safe machinery that was supposed to prevent a spill way down there failed instead. Read the warranty perhaps?

Some day—soon, one trusts—the oil will stop gushing into the Gulf. The war in Afghanistan, now approaching its ninth anniversary, also will end. But as in the Gulf, so also in Afghanistan, the aftermath of our best efforts seems increasingly likely to be—putting it as delicately as possible—a great big mess.

The recent unpleasantness surrounding the publication of foolish remarks by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and some of his associates may or may not have marked a defining moment in the war. We’ll see about that. But it’s already clear that the general’s words captured the mood of frustration shared by many of his countrymen.

Gen. Petraeus may yet turn it around. I hope he does. But the White House has given him only a year to pull it off, and many people fear that won’t be nearly enough to produce lasting results (supposing results both lasting and good are even possible in Afghanistan). Are we watching a replay of Vietnam?

And finally—the economy. An interview by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner seemed to sum it all up. Geithner insisted that the recovery is progressing, albeit slowly. And the national mood? People were “deeply scarred” by the great collapse two years ago, and remain nervous about investing and consuming now.

No doubt that’s true. But there’s more to it than that. A breadwinner out of work may be suffering psychological scars, but he or she would probably rather skip the shrink talk and simply say, “I need a job.” With unemployment over 9%, lots of Americans are saying that.

In none of these areas—the Gulf, Afghanistan, the economy—has America’s can-do spirit been irrevocably vanquished. Not yet. But the damage to morale is real, and is reflected in the nihilistic mood, neither liberal nor truly conservative, currently abroad in the land.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • Cooky642

    I believe that our Can-Do confidence has been “bent, folded, stapled and mutilated” by the fact that no one (at least in Washington) is listening to us! Not only is Mr. Obama “deaf, dumb and blind” to the “horse-sence” of the American people, but so are the members of Congress! None of us can “find a way in” to affect the headstrong agenda we’re being force-fed. So many are waiting and hoping for a change in November. If we get it, there will be a BIG bounce-back in American confidence. If not, I fear for my country.

  • Here’s some insights on the national mood from a national survey reported this week by the Rasmussen poll. Americans were asked:

    4* Does the Political Class in Washington care what most Americans think?
    15% Yes
    68% No
    17% Not sure

    5* The Declaration of Independence says that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed. Does the federal government today have the consent of the governed?
    23% Yes
    62% No
    15% Not sure

  • cytodad

    In each of these instances the Federal government has actually stood in the way of, and actually made matters worse, by its actions. Two weeks after the spill, the technology and equipment was there to contain the spill. The Administration’s refusal to suspend the Jones Act (an archaic pro-labor law designed to protect American jobs)and allow foreign deep water clean up technology in could have prevented the damage that has occurred. In fact, after all this time, they are still considering their options.

    As an ex-career military, the difficulties in the war in Afghanistan lie firmly with the White House (this one and the last) who committed young Americans to fight a war with impossible rules of engagement. It’s like tying one hand behind each soldiers back and sending them in to fight. All war is terrible but if you are going to fight one, go in with all the force you have and get it over with. This Administration is playing politics with military lives. Setting a ridiculous time table for withdrawal only makes it worse.

    Unemployment and the economic woes will continue as long as the President and the Congress keep applying economic principles that have proven do not work (Stimulus and Tax Increases) but are politically popular; especially as pay back to the majority party supporters.

    An enemy of this nation couldn’t have done a better job of demoralizing the population and tearing a the fabric of this nation. We are still a “Can Do Nation” if the many States will take back their nation and get the, ever growing Federal Government out of the way.

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  • elkabrikir

    The “can do”mentality has been replaced by the “victim” mentality. A “victim” stands around, with a chip on his shoulder, waiting for reparations.

    Michelle Obama spoke to Florida children earlier this week. Instead of inculcating the idea, “you can do” whatever you want in America….just look at my husband. She chose to highlight the disparities in education and income that “still plague” us.

    Who ever rallied the troops with the battle cry of, “You’re still downtrodden, after all these years!”

    Argh!!! I fear there’s no hope of change with this bunch!

  • Jon

    Can-do isn’t gone but the sustainability of the US Government, as befits the dignity of a human person is. The US is broke. It is doubtful as it now stands that we can fulfill the obligations that the US now has both to debtors and citizens. The ideals that the US were formed upon are still as valid as ever but the government has become a lopsided tool of moneyed interests (corporations). In the late nineteenth century the case of Santa Clara County vs Southern Pacific ( eventually led to corporations having the same rights as human beings under the 14th amendment to the constitution. What the congress, the courts, executive do is make things that are against human dignity eg. war, abortion, stealing (taxes and business regulation), repression (taxes); all perfectly legal for the moneyed interests. Until all the damage that has been done over the years is unwound, it doesn’t make any difference who is in the white house or congress or the court. It ain’t gonna change till we all get together somehow and figure out what to do. God have mercy on us.