When historians get around to appraising the start of the new century, what will they say about it? If circumstances continue as they have been, the period may well be deemed a deep black hole in the political life of this country.
From the disputatious presidential election of 2000, in which the supposedly nonpolitical Supreme Court stepped in to decide the winner; to the brutal terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; to the unwarranted U.S. invasion of Iraq and its disastrous aftermath; to the Great Recession at home; and now the disintegration of the American-backed regime in Iraq, the last nearly 14 years have witnessed a woeful stall in the American dream.
At the very least, the two presidential terms under Republican George W. Bush and nearly one and a half under Democrat Barack Obama have been a journey of disappointment. There has been partisan bickering at home, foreign policy chaos abroad, a stalemate in the American two-party system and deepening pessimism about its ability to deal with the nation's well-being.
After his court-adjudicated election in December 2000, Mr. Bush took the budget surplus inherited from the previous Democratic administration and dissipated it in deep tax cuts, market deregulation and free-wheeling banking and investment, sending the economy spiraling downward.
When the 9/11 attacks shook America's sense of security, Mr. Bush's strong and muscular response rallied the country in pursuit of the perpetrators harbored in Afghanistan. That support continued as he sold the country on his invasion of Iraq — a diversion from the unfinished job in Afghanistan. But when Iraq turned sour and the public eventually realized it, Mr. Bush's popularity bubble burst, helping to usher in the Obama presidency
Mr. Obama, too, was greeted with an outpouring of optimism and national self-satisfaction, being the first black American president and one who spoke persuasively of changing the way Washington worked. Almost at once, however, he ran into a coordinated Republican opposition that declared its primary objective was to make him a one-term president.
Mr. Obama's one major domestic achievement in that first term was a sweeping health-care insurance law, disparagingly dubbed "Obamacare" by the opposition and targeted for repeal from the start. But he was bogged down in coping with the detritus of the two wars and the recession he inherited from Mr. Bush, stymieing his own policy agenda.
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama managed to win a second term by alleging Republican unconcern for the plight of a struggling middle class and pledging to end the two wars. Then his own popularity plunged in the disastrous rollout of his health-care law and, most recently, in the disintegration of the regime in Iraq, which he had reluctantly backed after withdrawing all American combat forces.
At home, he managed to pin the blame for government shutdowns on the opposition party. Still, doubts grew, even among many fellow Democrats, that his placid, conciliatory managerial style fell short of the tough times he and the country now faced. His repeated complaints that he was left cleaning up the flawed policies and decisions of his predecessor were wearing thin, though justified.
An impression was sinking in through the first two years of Mr. Obama's second term that his administration was frustrated by the continued obstruction by Congress, particularly in the Republican-controlled House. Much energy and resources now were being expended in a hope, under discouraging circumstances, of winning back the House and holding onto control of the Senate in the approaching 2014 midterm congressional elections.
That is the political landscape in which Barack Obama now strives to salvage a positive legacy for his presidency. He continues to try to dig the country out of the black hole he inherited, with barely more than two years to go before he departs the Oval Office. With objectives unachieved such as immigration reform and the certain end of the two wars, much of the gloss of his early White House days has been diminished in the reality that, in Harry Truman's words, the buck still stops at his desk.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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