Ten years ago, America was in an awful way. It had been through a decade of terrorism, war and recession, which combined to create a pervasive sense of anxiety. The worldwide expansion of democracy had shifted into reverse.
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. economy was just beginning to climb out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Unemployment was at 10%.
Americans were being killed in Iraq at the rate of three per week. The war in Afghanistan was going so poorly that President Barack Obama mounted a troop surge. Congress was bitterly divided over his proposed health insurance reform.
Throughout the world, the United States was losing influence. In his 2009 book “The End of the American Century,” David S. Mason wrote that “in the past decade, and particularly since September 11, every aspect of this American dominance has begun to wane.” It was not only foreigners who were disenchanted with us. Americans were also beset with dread, confusion and outrage.
Today, we still have plenty of serious problems: climate change, the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, mass shootings, the continuing battle over health insurance. Not to mention Donald Trump and everything associated with his poisonous presidency.
But the end of the decade is a moment to remember that good things have happened since it began.
–The economy has enjoyed the longest expansion in American history, reducing unemployment to 3.5% and pushing up wages — without setting off inflation. The S&P 500 stock index has tripled. Home prices, which plummeted in the recession, have rebounded.
–The U.S. left Iraq, and even after the return of American troops to fight the Islamic State in 2014, we have only about 5,000 military personnel there now — compared with 136,000 in 2009. The number of Americans fighting in Afghanistan is down from 51,000 in 2009 to 13,000. In 2009, the U.S. military lost 465 men and women in the two wars. This year, the number is less than 40.
–The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which banned openly gay members, was lifted by Obama in 2011. Same-sex marriage, which was allowed in only a handful of states and had been forbidden by state constitutional amendment in most, gained nationwide constitutional protection thanks to a 2015 Supreme Court decision.
–Twenty states have banned discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. Only one state, North Carolina, enacted a “bathroom bill” to keep transgender people from using facilities matching their gender identity, and North Carolina eventually agreed to a federal court settlement overturning key elements of the policy. Both the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts decided to admit members based on their gender identity.
–Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011, and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a U.S. military raid in Syria this year.
–Obama banned the use of torture on suspected terrorists by the CIA, reversing the Bush administration’s policy.
–The Obama administration granted protection to some 800,000 undocumented foreigners who were brought here as children. Courts have blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, whose fate is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.
–A succession of killings of unarmed black men by police helped focus lasting attention on America’s persistent racial inequities. This year, some Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. The city of Evanston, Illinois, recently decided to use revenue from cannabis taxes to pay compensation to black residents, who make up 17% of the city’s population.
Trump has done immeasurable harm on all sorts of matters. But he has also created a powerful backlash that has manifested itself in annual women’s marches, renewed awareness of the persistence of racism, and public support for modest gun regulations, action against climate change, immigration reform, the Affordable Care Act — and his impeachment.
It says something good about the American character that for almost the entirety of his time in office, a majority of people have disapproved of this president’s performance.
In 2019, it’s easy to think our politics will never get better – just as in 2009, it was easy to think the economy would never get better. But when you hit bottom, most roads lead upward.