America at year end: the best of times or the worst?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

So began “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens.  And so it is today.

The presidential and congressional elections left a still sharply divided American electorate.

For Republican conservatives, the federal elections meant a GOP president could allow the Republican Congress an almost unfettered chance to adopt their long-cherished policy proposals.  President Trump himself would be free from the limits of traditional policies.

For Democratic progressives, the Trump victory brought deep worries about the fate of a political system that had moved toward accepting greater diversity.  Not only must the Democrats fight to preserve their legacy, but also they must provide bold alternatives showing they are ready to govern.

Many are concerned that the Trump campaign gave racists the license to act out their prejudices.  For the objects of their threats and attacks, this is truly the worst of times.

If conservatism, now triumphant, succeeds, it may tip the political balance for the foreseeable future.  Popular success could mean a return to the limited government days before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s.  Its failure could mean voters would respond to a renewed Democratic Party and a larger role for government.

One obvious positive is the recovery from the Great Recession, already fading from memory.  A leading Washington Post economic analyst recently wrote, “There is no mystery about Barack Obama’s greatest presidential achievement: He stopped the Great Recession from becoming the second Great Depression.”

He calculated that while Obama is given credit for a $787 billion stimulus, the federal boost to the economy was really $2.6 trillion over four years.  Though about 8.7 million jobs were lost, the recovery added 15.6 million new jobs.  College enrollment has even declined as some jobless who had taken refuge in enhancing their educations, have found employment.

Prosperity has returned.  Housing prices have recovered.  Interest rates are beginning to return to normal levels, a boon to the retired.

Still, many people feel “disappointed … insecure and shortchanged,” he writes.  Perhaps their new jobs pay less.  Perhaps long-term opportunities are less clear.  Perhaps they have simply given up looking.  An estimated seven million prime-age men no longer want to work.

Less clear is Obama’s Affordable Care Act.  For people who could not afford health insurance coverage, it was a major breakthrough.  But it was flawed, thanks to a poorly conceived marriage of government and private sector insurance.  Immune from being repaired, it may now be killed.

In world affairs, the bad news seems to swamp the good news.  Much of the blame goes back to the ill-conceived Iraq war, launched in 2003.  Just as in Afghanistan, the U.S. had no clear objective.  Even worse, it tried to sponsor nation building without having a good understanding of the nations in question.

Afghanistan has become the longest war in American history.  Iraq has led most people to oppose the use of U.S. forces on the ground in the Middle East or perhaps anywhere.  The muddled American goals in both places have not yet been met.

In Syria, where American policy came to be seen as weak and indecisive, Russia seized the opportunity to assert the leading role in the world that it had lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Will Trump do better than Obama or will he be enthralled with Putin?

On the plus side to most people, Obama ended more than a half-century of failed policy toward Cuba.  The real significance of that move was strengthened U.S. relations with many other countries in Latin America, which opposed America’s Cuba policy.

China’s poor domestic air quality led it to cooperate with Obama on climate issues.  But it managed to enhance its power in Asia.  Not only did it build new, well-armed islands in international waters, but also it induced the Philippine leader, whose country was an American ally, to cozy up to it.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, designed to enforce America’s leadership in the face of China’s moves, seems doomed because it is badly drafted and detracts from the powers of U.S. courts.

For many Americans, accustomed to feeling proud of their country’s dominant role in the world, these developments are unfamiliar and even humiliating.  When Trump says he wants to “make America great again,” his message is meant to respond to this post-Iraq uneasiness.

The country will now try a new approach to governing.  Whether this is the best or worst of times will depend heavily on our leaders.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.