A Nation Relaunched




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I survived the George W. Bush Administration. And you did, too. Which is why you should do what I'm doing on January 20th. Buy a cake, blow out a candle, and celebrate the rebirth of something dead these eight years: optimism.

Ronald Reagan — a paragon of the constituency that twice elected Mr. Bush to office — famously asked in 1980 if the country was better off then than it was four years earlier, when Jimmy Carter was elected president. The very same consideration should be given this month. Are you better off now than you were when a second Bush became leader of the free world?

I paid $1.39 for a gallon of gas in November 2000. As recently as last September, I paid $3.90 for that same gallon, a price that has plummeted of late . . . but only because of the worst recession in a long lifetime.

With my sanity in mind, I won't review the numbers, but my family put our house on the market in July 2006, at the front end of the worst real-estate collapse in more than a generation (but for a crystal ball). Nine months later, that house sold for two-thirds of what our real-estate agent — a veteran of 30 years — estimated it was worth.

Investments? Stocks have been stumbling down a staircase, compounded by the housing collapse, volatility in oil prices, and the ongoing — almost six years now — war in Iraq. The dollar is a fraction of its international value in 2000, America falling by the international trade wayside just as the sleeping economic giant that is China awakens.

And bring up the American automotive industry at your peril. Tens of thousands of displaced workers in Michigan will be happy to compare life in 2009 with the one they remember from 2000. Closer to home, I have good friends who aren't working today where they were a year ago (to say nothing of their job status nine years ago).

All that and, by the way, two wars. Tens of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan dead in wars begun to (1) rid the world of terrorism (which no war will ever do), (2) find and capture Osama bin Laden (not yet), and (3) find and destroy weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (still looking).

The only winners — and it's stretching the term — in the mess described above, I'll emphasize, are American soldiers. Dutiful often to the ultimate extreme, the young men and women who compose our military deserve better than the commanders deciding their fates. However misguided a mission may be, soldiers must do their jobs. For the jobs they've done nearly six years now, every American should be proud.

Which brings me back to the newest — and most important — job in the country. When Barack Obama is sworn in as our 44th president on January 20th, he'll make history in ways we've been reminded since long before his election. But starting on January 21st — let's allow him the inaugural bash he deserves — Obama has a job to do. And his skin color, his family background, his charisma in front of a crowd, even his beautiful wife and children will do him little good when it comes to the execution of that job. His capacity to think, to listen, to decipher, to analyze, to negotiate, and to seek help when needed will be the presidential traits that can make the United States a better place in 2009 than it was in 2008, with the goal of 2010 being better than 2009, and so on. (My nine favorite words from Obama's acceptance speech on November 4th in Chicago: "I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.")

On the subject of new beginnings, we stateside shouldn't discount a critical component to President Obama's formidable challenge: making friends abroad. Over the last eight years, America has become either a monster or a laughingstock in the international community (and not just because of our spineless dollar). But if you saw the images from Kenya on Election Night, you get the impression a seismic shift may have already taken place. A friend of mine wrote from Italy and described Italians as being "absolutely delirious about Obama's victory." It's a global community, so let's conduct ourselves like someone else is in the room.

Optimism — hope, as it's sold by politicians — is healthy. As a 10-year-old new to southern California, I sat in Anaheim Stadium in 1979 and watched a woebegone franchise (then called the California Angels) win their very first division crown. The chant that filled the ballpark that night — screamed by fans who had never seen playoff baseball — was borrowed from a local hardware store that happened to sponsor the team. Three words every American knows well by now, and a mantra we should (at least quietly) chant as Barack Obama enters the White House: "Yes we can." M