On Nov. 19, Rasmussen Reports published results from a national telephone poll that showed that 47 percent of America’s likely voters said the nation’s “best days are in the past,” 37 percent said they are in the future. Sixteen percent were undecided. Just before President Barack Obama was inaugurated, 48 percent said our best days were still ahead and 35 percent said they had come and gone. This is a disturbing trend.

What’s driving it? Let me say what’s not driving it. It is not that millions of Americans suddenly started worrying about the national debt. Seriously, do you know anyone who says: “I couldn’t sleep last night. I was tossing and turning until dawn worrying that the national debt was now $14 trillion.” Sorry, that only happens in contrived campaign ads.

I think what is driving people’s pessimism today are two intersecting concerns. The long-term concern is that people intuitively understand that what we need most now is nation-building in America. They understand it by just looking around at our crumbling infrastructure, our sputtering job-creation engines and the latest international education test results that show our peers out-educating us, which means they will eventually out-compete us. Many people understand that we are slipping as a country and what they saw in Barack Obama, or what they projected onto him, was that he had both the vision and capability to pull America together behind a plan for nation-building at home.

But I think they understand something else: that we are facing a really serious moment. We have to get this plan for nation-building right because we are driving without a spare tire or a bumper. The bailouts and stimulus that we have administered to ourselves have left us without much cushion. There may be room, and even necessity, for a little more stimulus. But we have to get this moment right. We don’t get a do-over. If we fail to come together and invest, spend and cut wisely, we’re heading for a fall — and if America becomes weak, your children won’t just grow up in a different country, they will grow up in a different world.

We have to manage America’s foreign policy, and plan its rebuilding at home, at a time when our financial resources and our geopolitical power are more limited than ever while our commitments abroad and entitlement promises at home are more extensive than ever.

That is why I believe most Americans don’t want a plan for deficit reduction. The Tea Party’s vision is narrow and uninspired. Americans want a plan to make America great again, and at some level they know that such a plan will require a hybrid politics — one that blends elements of both party’s instincts. And they will follow a president — they would even pay more taxes and give up more services — if they think he really has a plan to make America great again, not just bring him victory in 2012 by 50.1 percent.

That hybrid politics will require difficult choices: We need to raise gasoline and carbon taxes to discourage their use and drive the creation of a new clean energy industry, while we cut payroll and corporate taxes to encourage employment and domestic investment. We need to cut Medicare and Social Security entitlements at the same time as we make new investments in infrastructure, schools and government-financed research programs that will spawn the next Google and Intel. We need to finish our work in Iraq, which still has the potential to be a long-term game-changer in the Arab-Muslim world, but we need to get out of Afghanistan — even if it entails risks — because we can’t afford to spend $190 million a day to bring its corrupt warlords from the 15th to the 19th century.

Yes, Obama inherited a huge mess from the reckless Bush team. The Onion was not far off in its satirical headline at inauguration time: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” Obama deserves much more credit than he has received for stabilizing the economy and reviving the auto industry.

But the reason he hasn’t gotten it is not just because those nasty Republicans say all those nasty things about him. After all, he owns the biggest bully pulpit in the world. It’s because the 40 percent of Americans in the middle who have determined our last two elections don’t see an integrated plan for nation-building at home that includes not only more spending but hard choices. The best thing the president could do right now is declare his support for the draft recommendations on how to reduce the country’s budget deficit just laid out by the co-chairmen of the White House’s fiscal commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. In their plan, everybody takes a hit.

By doing that, Obama could seize control of the debate. The president could say that he doesn’t agree with every cut they propose and wants to add his own investments in our future. But their hybrid approach, he could explain, is the only workable course for the country right now — one he intends to use as the basis for his plan for nation-building in America so that never again will we see polls that indicate that half the country thinks our best days are behind us.

Thomas Friedman is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for The New York Times, who became the paper’s foreign-affairs columnist in 1995.

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