Not since the early party of World War II has this country entered a new year with such dismal prospects. Luck alone can prevent the occurrence of some near catastrophe in 1980.
For politics are out of joint with reality. The American people are being led -- and asked to be led -- into the illusion that they can meet fundamental problems by painless, moralistic gestures.
The fundamental problems find daily expression in phrases well worn by constant use. The difficulties denoted by such cliches as the "decline in American power" and "intransigent inflation" and "the energy crisis" are not only real; they are now so acute and intertwined that the merest happening sets off chain reactions.
Consider the seizure of the embassy in Tehran and the holding of 50 American hostages. President Carter focused on the hostages as though they were the whole world and bargained for them in a way that emphasized playing for time. But events did not stand still. Ayatollah Khomeini broadcast throughout the surrounding areas his corrosive message of Islamic fundamentalism. The Russians correctly perceived both the threat to their puppet regime in Kabul and American flaccidity. So they sent troops streaming across the border into Afghanistan.
Though still pussyfooting on the issue, the president will almost certainly have to do something -- probably withdraw from Senate consideration the arms control treaty with Moscow. That action will then strain this country's relations with the leading European allies in a way that complicates all problems.
The oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf, moreover, received the same message as the Russians. The Islamic revolution preached by the ayatollah saps the vitals of Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia itself. The regimes in any one of those states could pop during the months ahead -- with shattering impact on both the energy scene and the inflationary outlook.
Already the threat has had an impact on oil prices. At least partially to shore themselves up and take their distance from the United States, Saudi Arabia and the other oil monarchies doubled crude oil prices in the past year. Further increases are certain. As a result, inflation in the United States and other industrialized countries will advance and become even less manageable.
Developing countries dependent upon rapid growth will now find all their revenues eaten up by higher fuel bills. They will have to turn to private banks for financing. Some of the most indebted -- Brazil, for example, and Turkey -- are going to have trouble raising money. Perhaps they will have to default -- sending a shock through the international financial system. Maybe they will lapse back into autocracy -- another blow to American prestige. At best, they will curtail imports -- notably those purchased from the United States.
In any case, the problems of energy dependence, rising prices and American decline in the world sharpen still further. Growth in this country is bound to slow down, and a deep recession seems at least possible.
The trouble would be bearable, even welcome, if the country were making square address to the difficulties. But President Carter is not moving in that direction. He still acts as though the centerpiece of all the trouble is the hostages. He still plays for time and, while bargaining, focuses national attention on lighting candles for the hostages or on prayers. He makes it seem that much hangs on a meaningless vote by the United Nations Security Council for sanctions against Iran that cannot have a serious impact for months.
When it comes to dealing directly with the problems themselves, the president shrinks back. He resists increases in the defense budget and does nothing to reassert a covert capacity for protecting political influence. He takes no new energy measures in response to the huge price increases. He leaves most of the fight against inflation to the Federal Reserve Board. He prepares a budget that increases spending on education, health and low-income housing.
Moreover, it cannot be said that Carter has misread the public mood. The rival presidential candidates most likely to bring political authority directly to bear on serious problems -- Edward Kennedy for the Democrats and John Connally on the Republican side -- are both faring badly. The country is pleased to believe that expressions of good will suffice to meet the fever of the times. It is getting the leadership it deserves, and will continue to get it until the public mood is jolted by the one thing that is certainly shaping up for this year -- a wallop.