The defining event of the decade.
Today is New Year's Eve.
But this isn't just the last day of a year. It is the last day of a decade.
In truth, I guess the last day of every year marks the end of a decade, the end of a 10–year period. Even if the new year doesn't end in a zero.
But the presence of the zero at the end of the year that arrives at midnight provides a convenient starting point and ending point. Thus, we can start thinking of the first decade of the 21st century (the "Aughts," some folks like to call them — or the "Naughts," as others prefer) in the past tense.
What will this decade be remembered for?
First and foremost, I guess, the decade will be remembered for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. More than any event before or since, that day symbolizes the clash between the modern world and the antiquated mindset that gave birth to al–Qaeda. It put this country on the path to two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that still rage today.
And, even though the United States has squandered thousands of lives and nearly $1 trillion in those wars, the conflict clearly isn't resolved. We need look no further than the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a jet bound for Detroit to confirm that fact.
In the aftermath of that event, Scott Shane reports in the New York Times that the National Counterterrorism Center has been severely dressed down for its failings, although no one seems to have avoided criticism.
(Tellingly, columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in yesterday's New York Times, "Before he left for [Christmas] vacation, [Barack] Obama tried to shed his Spock mien and juice up the empathy quotient on jobs. But in his usual inspiring/listless cycle, he once more appeared chilly in his response to the chilling episode on Flight 253, issuing bulletins through his press secretary and hitting the links. At least you have to seem concerned.")
The decade will also be remembered for economic turbulence. It began with the bursting of the speculative so–called "dot.com bubble," and it ends in the wake of the rapid economic rise of China and India — and the simultaneous decline of the United States, culminating in a dizzying collapse that left millions of lives in a shambles.
As America appeared to teeter on the brink of another Depression, voters in this country chose to hand the presidency to a Democrat after eight years of Republican rule. That decision also produced the nation's first black president, whose nomination (but not his eventual electoral triumph) had been secured before the economic downturn.
As optimistic as many Americans were on the day Obama took office, that optimism has faded. And the optimism that saw the start of the 2000s has, too. CNN reports that, heading into 2010, Americans are less confident than they were on the eve of 2000.
It is ironic, I suppose, that Obama succeeded an unpopular president who took office in spite of the fact that he lost the popular vote when the decade was still new.
And, as Obama's presidency nears the end of its first year, many people who supported Obama because they wanted a president who would end the crisis and promote policies that would help put jobless Americans back to work have been having second thoughts. We may find out next week, when the Labor Department issues the final jobs report of the decade, whether they have reason to be reassured about the choice they made.
Of course, no discussion of the decade would be complete without a reference to Hurricane Katrina and the destruction it brought to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in late August 2005. The storm caused more than $80 billion in damage (in 2005 dollars), and more than 2,500 people were killed or missing when it was over.
2005 was the midway point of the decade, and Katrina, along with the conflict over Terri Schiavo, marked a transition in the public's perception of Republicans and Democrats. That, too, was ironic, I suppose, given the way two former presidents, a Democrat (Bill Clinton) and a Republican (George H.W. Bush), had worked together only months earlier in the pursuit of relief for the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed more than 200,000 lives.
In the elections that followed — in 2006 and 2008 — Democrats were the winners. But, as 2010 begins, Democrats — once supremely confident that their Republican counterparts had botched things so thoroughly that they were virtually guaranteed to control the federal government for years to come — are nervously anticipating the midterm elections, aware that many Democratic officeholders face tough, if not impossible, re–election campaigns.
E.J. Dionne Jr. writes, in The New Republic, that the recriminations that have marked the first year of the Obama administration are a continuation of arguments that carried over from the Bush years. It is vital, he says, to put "the reckless and squandered decade that is, mercifully, ending" behind us.
"It should not surprise us that the battle for the future will be shaped by struggles over the past," Dionne writes. "How often over the last 40 years have conservatives defended their policies in the name of rolling back 'the excesses of the '60s?' For even longer, liberals were charged with being locked into 'the New Deal approaches of the 1930s.' Liberals, in turn, pointed proudly to both eras as times of unparalleled social advance."
But, while "Americans instinctively recoil at living too much in the past," he says, "we have no choice but to reach a settlement about the meaning of the last 10 years. It is the only way we will successfully turn the next 10 into a decade of renewal."