NEW YORK (Reuters) - A new book by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum began with a broken subway escalator the authors encountered during their daily commutes that they saw as epitomizing the state of politics and economy.
"That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back" comes at a time when many Americans are puzzling over the issue posed by the title.
Faced with stagnating unemployment numbers, an historic credit downgrade by S&P, and partisan rancor over how to reduce the U.S. debt, the two foreign policy columnists tap into public hunger for answers.
"People are getting more and more concerned. When you see the polls, you find a large majority feels the country is on the wrong track," Mandelbaum told Reuters.
The authors, who describe themselves as "frustrated optimists," attempt to diagnose America's problems and prescribe solutions to return to a robust economy.
The book, which has hit No. 3 on the Publishers Weekly hardcover nonfiction bestsellers list after its release last week, addresses a wide range of popular issues such as the national debt, education, energy consumption and technology.
Friedman and Mandelbaum take pride in the United States' past successes, which they attribute to a set of policy priorities they call "the American formula".
The formula includes government investment in education, infrastructure and research and development, attracting and retaining the most promising immigrants, and certain regulations on the private economy.
"America didn't get to where it is today in terms of its vibrancy and level of development by accident. It got here by applying this formula," said Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist. "The book is a wake-up call and a pep talk to get back to that formula."
America's problems have come about because it has strayed from its formula for success and failed to take leadership on issues that will be integral to future prosperity, such as energy technology, write Friedman and Mandelbaum.
For example, the authors point out that U.S. consumers spent more money on potato chips in 2009 than their government applied to energy research and development.
The book also decries "magical thinking" about the economy, which the authors cite as a key factor in the spiraling deficit. They call on the United States to "spend less, save more, and accept higher taxes".
"We really feel a sense of urgency about this," Friedman said. "We're driving around right now in a car without a bumper or a spare tire."
The authors also take aim at the political partisanship they feel is responsible for exacerbating many of the country's problems. "We really believe the country is nowhere near as divided as our politics right now," said Friedman.
As Congress returns to Washington after summer break, presidential candidates campaign, and President Obama touts a major new proposal to encourage job growth, Americans are eager for a plan to address their country's woes.
Friedman and Mandelbaum call for "political shock therapy," a third party presidential candidate who will adopt pragmatic solutions from both ends of the political spectrum and speak truth about the consequences of maintaining the status quo.
"We believe that it's the platform that's important, not the candidate," said Mandelbaum, who has written more than a dozen books and is a US foreign policy professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Though they are not optimistic that such a candidate could be elected, the authors believe he or she could have a major influence on the nation's political priorities as a whole.
For Friedman, the author of the bestseller "The World is Flat", the stakes are also personal.
"If we can't sustain the American dream, my daughters will not just grow up in a different America -- they will grow up in a different world," he said.
editing by Christine Kearney and Bob Tourtellotte