By Eugene Robinson
Christmas came early for journalists this year. Thank you, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, for being the gift that keeps on giving.
The gatecrashers who upstaged President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the administration’s first White House state dinner turned out not to be mere garden-variety poseurs. They are world-class poseurs, apparently—dedicated and energetic limelight-seekers who spent the past several years tracing an incandescent arc through high society in the horse-country piedmont west of Washington, leaving a richly marked trail of litigation behind them.
According to The Washington Post, the Salahis have been sued by caterers, chauffeurs, contractors, a fancy hair salon and more than a dozen other parties. Their story seems to be a Gatsbyesque tale of personal reinvention. Tareq imagined himself as a polo-playing aristocrat who hung around with Prince Charles. Michaele attended a reunion of Washington Redskins cheerleaders, although there is no record of her being a member of the squad. And both of them, of course, wanted to be on televisions as stars of a reality show.
It’s not just that they’re such good copy, though. The Christmas gift that I so treasure is being able to think about something so fundamentally unimportant as the antics of the Salahis. Last Christmas, it was not so.
Then, we were staring into the economic abyss. The global financial system had come close to utter collapse, and at year’s end it was far from certain that a series of desperate and unprecedented interventions by the federal government would succeed in turning things around. Real estate prices seemed to have no floor. Credit, a necessary lubricant of the economy, had ceased to flow. There was the very real possibility that what was obviously a severe recession would reach an awful tipping point—that a second Great Depression could take hold.
Today, with unemployment at 10 percent, hardly anyone is thrilled with the state of the economy. But all the depression talk has ended, and the economy is growing again—slowly, yes, but perceptibly. There is widespread consensus that the worst is over.
This turnaround has come at great cost. At least 7 million jobs have been lost, and unemployment may not have peaked. There are whole cities, especially in the Midwest, that were left utterly bereft by the bankruptcy and restructuring of General Motors, once the mightiest auto company in the world. A messy, pork-filled stimulus package has helped balloon the federal budget deficit to record levels. The government and the Federal Reserve have shoveled money into the financial system with a bulldozer, effectively rewarding the irresponsible bankers whose recklessness and greed caused the crisis in the first place. But now, at least, we’re able to think about how to remedy the remedies.
Since last Christmas, our government has begun to tackle huge, structural problems that had long gone unaddressed: health care, climate change and education. To state the obvious, not everyone agrees with Obama’s proposed solutions. But it’s promising that the nation is so passionately engaged in debate about wonkish policy initiatives—public option vs. Medicare buy-in, carbon tax vs. cap and trade. This nation is at its best when it’s going somewhere and doing something, not when it’s standing still.
On Christmas Day 2008, U.S. foreign policy was seen as bellicose and dangerous by much of the rest of the world. Today, the United States is celebrated for having rejoined the community of nations by rejecting torture, respecting the Geneva Conventions and embracing international institutions. When Obama went rogue at the Copenhagen summit and cut a side deal, at least he worked in concert with other major powers—China, India, Brazil and South Africa. He didn’t sit home and thumb his nose at the idea of nations working together as stewards of the planet.
The difference a year makes isn’t all about Obama, though. It has become trendy to say that Congress is hopelessly dysfunctional, but the House and Senate did step up to grapple with these big issues. Congressional leaders saw that the safe course—do nothing—was not an option.
Last Christmas our troops were mired in two faraway wars, and this is still true today. Obama’s withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq should be a comfort, especially to overburdened military families. His escalation of the war in Afghanistan, I fear, has the potential to cast a pall over Christmas 2010. When a story like the Salahis comes around next year, I hope we’re able to smile.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group