DIVISIVE DECADE OF NEAR DECADENCE

December 18, 2009

It wasn't so long ago that politicians had the luxury to bicker over how to spend a record budget surplus, Barack Obama was a state senator trying unsuccessfully to get a foot in the door of the U.S. Capitol, and George W. Bush went to sleep with visions of a dominant Republican majority dancing in his head.

This first decade of the 21st century has taken us from hanging chad to fist bumps and beyond. From peace and prosperity to war and economic turmoil.

In two improbable elections that serve as bookends to the decade, Americans elected _ barely _ a pedigreed president following in his father's footsteps and then _ surprisingly easily _ a trailblazer who symbolically closed the nation's long festering wounds over race relations.

Bush offered himself as a "uniter, not a divider." Obama exhorted Americans to put aside "petty grievances." In the end, though, people came away more divided than ever and still dissatisfied with the state of the nation.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political communication at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says "People wanted to be united all right, "but they meant 'united on my terms."

It was five agonizing weeks after Election Day 2000 when Bush finally laid claim to the presidency. The long-in-limbo presidential election - the closest in 124 years - didn't end until the Supreme Court put a halt to the recount of ballots in Florida.

Chads begone.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Democrat who switched to the Republican Party said "The darn thing had to stop somewhere."

But less than half the nation thought Bush had won fair and square; nearly half weren't confident that votes had been accurately counted. And there was plenty of scar tissue on the body politic. Bush made early overtures to begin the healing. "I know America wants reconciliation and unity," he told the nation. "And we must seize this moment and deliver."

It seems almost quaint in hindsight: Bush's campaign was built on expectations that the federal budget would run surpluses for a decade or more. His agenda was one of peacetime possibilities: giant tax cuts, more money for education, free prescription drugs for seniors, and more. He delivered some of it. But by Bush's last year in office, the red ink was nearing a half-trillion dollars. (This year's deficit estimates stretch to $1.5 trillion.)

The planes that knocked down the World Trade Center towers had knocked everything else off kilter, too. Shock and mourning gave way to shock and awe - and Bush's misplaced confidence that with a one-two punch, the U.S. would make quick work of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Enter Obama. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama was talked up as presidential fodder before he even set foot in Washington. And for once, reality lived up to that hype.

Bush, his presidency weighed down by two wars and the seizing economy, left office with the worst ratings since Richard Nixon. His signature achievement was what didn't happen: "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil," he said with pride.

"Change has come to America," a jubilant Obama declared on Election Day 2008. If nothing else, the decade's politics surely will be remembered for that moment when a nation built on slavery elected its first black president.

Obama told a crowd that night in Chicago's Grant Park "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, tonight is your answer."

Signs of sweeping changes, symbolic and substantive, were everywhere as Obama quickly set about reversing eight years of Republican rule. But it wasn't nearly as simple as "Yes, we can."

Obama, after all, is a center-left politician trying to govern a center-right country. His early overtures for bipartisanship won him some kind words from Republicans but little more.

Jeffrey Goldfarb, a sociologist at the New School for Social Research in New York who studies cynicism and politics pointed out that "the radicalness of the decade has overwhelmed him and made it impossible to achieve his ambitions."

Approaching the end of his first year in office, Obama still has the approval of most Americans. But the public's mood is increasingly glum. Unemployment is still on the rise, bickering over how to overhaul the health-care system turned increasingly rancorous and the turmoil in Afghanistan persists.

"We just are not where we want to be yet," Obama said during a recent appearance at the White House. "We've got a long way to go."

He was talking about the economy. But his words speak to so much more.

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