09/19/2014 10:51 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

America the Hammer

Mark Wilson via Getty Images

In his September 10 speech about the middle-eastern terrorists ISIL, President Obama gave the classic rationale for U.S. involvement: "America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth... Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world." What kind of leadership?

Obama's assertion of U.S. leadership has two components. In the first, the president boasted that our economy is the strongest in the world:

Our technology companies and universities are unmatched; our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it's been in decades. For all the work that remains, our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history.

The 2013 World Bank rank of countries by GDP shows the US number one ($16.8T), followed by China ($9.2T), Japan ($4.9T), Germany ($3.6T), France ($2.7T), England ($2.5T), Brazil ($2.2T), Russia ($2.1T), Italy ($2.1T), and India ($1.8). Two-thirds of the way through 2014, the US is still number one .

Most Americans believe the U.S. is the world leader. A recent CNN article examined recent poll results and concluded how Americans respond, when asked about America's stature, depends upon the way the question is framed. If we are asked, "Because of the United States' history and its Constitution, do you think the U.S. has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world?" 80 percent of respondents agree.

On the other hand, many Americans are not happy with the economy. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 50 percent of respondents feel the economy is "improving." Nonetheless, 49 percent believe the U.S. is "still in a depression" (That's down from 64 percent in December). 52 percent opined, "The economy has improved a bit, but we have a long way to go before things are better." Given this pessimism, it's not surprising that 80 percent of respondents believe the U.S. is in "a state of decline." 76 percent are not confident that "life for our children's generation will be better than it has been for us."

Americans believe they live in the greatest country in the world but they are not optimistic about the future.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll provides more information about our pessimism. 54 percent of respondents agreed with the statement "The widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else is undermining the idea that every American has the opportunity to move up to a better standard of living." And, when asked about the economy, 71 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "These are mostly problems with the inability of elected officials in Washington to get things done to help improve the economy."

Americans are proud but pessimistic. Does this make us a good world leader?

Politicians typically talk about American leadership in foreign affairs. In recent months, the U.S. has had to initiate coalitions to deal with events such as the Russian incursion into the Ukraine. Subsequent to his September 10 speech, President Obama formed a coalition to deal with ISIL.

The latest Pew Research poll indicates there is bipartisan support for Obama's ISIL strategy -- 64 percent of Republicans support it and 60 percent of Democrats.

Nonetheless, another Pew Research poll reported that the majority of respondents believed the U.S. "plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago." More than half agreed, "the U.S. should 'mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.'" What changed between the two polls was the emergence of ISIL. 83 percent of Pew poll respondents felt that "protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks" should be America's number one foreign policy goal.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously quipped, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." It's the nature of American leadership: we hold the largest hammer in the world.

The U.S. has the world's largest military. In 2013 we spent $640 billion on defense, more than the next eight countries combined. (The number two country, China, spent an estimated $188 billion.) As a result, we're the world's police force. Former Congressman Ron Paul claims we have military personnel in 900 overseas bases in 130 countries.

When President Obama said, "American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world," he was preaching to the choir: despite our problems, Americans believe we are the world's most powerful nation because we have the biggest hammer.

But there's more to leadership than wielding a hammer. We have a strong economy and military but a seeming inability to deal with crucial problems such as economic inequality and global climate change.

The Bible teaches, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." If America doesn't generate a vision for a world of peace and justice, we will lose our preeminence. No matter how big our hammer.