The country and its leaders were caught off guard when terrorists on hijacked airplanes attacked the homeland on Sept. 11, 2001. The financial crisis of 2008, which turned into a deep recession, forced drastic, unprecedented action by a government struggling to keep pace with the economic wreckage. The devastation from Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 exposed serious gaps in the government’s disaster response and emergency management systems.

“We always wait for the crisis to happen,” said Leon Panetta, who served in government as secretary of defense, director of the CIA, White House chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget and a member of the House. “I know the human failings we’re dealing with, but the responsibility of people elected to these jobs is to make sure we are not caught unawares.”…

Long ago, this was far less the case, a time when the United States projected competence and confidence around the globe, said Philip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia who served in five administrations and was executive director of the 9/11 Commission.

“America had the reputation of being non-ideological, super pragmatic, problem solvers, par excellence,” he said. “This image of the United States was an earned image, of people seeing America do almost a wondrous series of things. . . . We became known as the can-do country. If you contrast that with the image of the U.S. today, it’s kind of depressing.”