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From Wars to Recession, a Review of Decade’s Politics

December 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Starting with a divisive presidential election and ending with the rancorous debate over health care reform, Gwen Ifill and political analysts look back at the highs and lows of the decade's politics.

GWEN IFILL: After 10 years of momentous elections, wars, attacks, and economic booms and busts, we take a look back tonight at the decade in politics and governance through the eyes of three NewsHour regulars who have helped us cover it all, Amy Walter, editor in chief of The Hotline, National Journal’s political daily, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Starting with you, Michael, what would you say was the signal event of this decade?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: It would have to be the attack of Sept.11, 2001, because, you know, not only has that caused all sorts of obvious changes in American society, but look at the kind of events that led to.

George W. Bush declared a war on terrorism, led us into war in Afghanistan, Iraq, used very harsh measures against terrorism. In 2004 — I think Andrew — Andy would agree with this — George Bush was reelected largely by people who may have been concerned about his other policies, but were worried about terrorism.

2008, it’s very unlikely that Barack Obama would have been nominated by the Democrats if he were not so against the war in Iraq, able to benefit from an anti-war sentiment. So, if 2001, if those attacks had not happened, our decade would have been very different.

GWEN IFILL: Andy, why not the economy? This is pocketbook. This is close to people’s heart. And we had an incredible crash, especially at the end of the decade.

ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: Well, yes, the economy. It wasn’t only 9/11 — 9/11 was the defining moment. But this was — this was a decade that started out bad, and then went to really worse.

In 1999, 64 percent said the country was — the national economy was in excellent or good shape. By 2001, that was down to 36 percent. In 2009, it’s down to 11 percent. We had a decade where the American public didn’t get income gains, did not make real income gains, for much of the decade. And then it ends with this smashingly bad great recession.

So, the economy is right behind 9/11. And it colored many of the things that we think about and study here, politics, social and economic behavior.

GWEN IFILL: Amy, as — when you think about these two big signal issues, the 9/11 attacks, the economy, did they serve to insulate our president or to expose them more to public outcry?

AMY WALTER, Editor in Chief, The Hotline: Well, I — and I think Michael said it quite well, which is, you start the decade off with a president where terrorism is sort of his calling card. It is an issue in which Republicans use to make gains, not just in the 2002 midterm elections, but in 2004, certainly, successful.

And then we turn it around almost 180 degrees in 2006 and 2008, frustration about Iraq, frustration about the economy. I think what is also interesting is, fundamentally, this comes down to, if we are talking about this decade, to me, is just a breakdown in how people felt about institutions, right, that institutions basically failed Americans.

And it started off with things — you know, Sept. 11 was different, but I think you started off this decade with things like the Enron. And you ended it, of course, with Bernie Madoff and the collapse of Wall Street.

And, so, I think, fundamentally, what we are seeing politically, too, is sort of the rise of the individual, that institutions now are no longer as trusted, including politicians.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that is what I was going to say. The beginning of the decade also coincided with the most contested election of our lifetimes.

AMY WALTER: Correct. That’s right. And, so, you started off there, you know, but what I thought was really interesting, too, was, when you look at party identification in 2000, and now compare it to where we are now, looking at the Pew poll, of course, the number of people who identify themselves as independents has jumped six points.

It’s not that the number of people who identify themselves as Democrats has really gone up either. It’s that fewer people identified as Republicans. This number looks almost exactly the same as 1992, where we had some of those same elements coming into play, right, frustration with the status quo. There was scandal in Washington. There was obviously economic upheaval.

And, so, I think what we are seeing, both in campaigns and the way that politicians talk about things, it feels very Perotian, right? We are going to move away from institutions.

GWEN IFILL: Perotian?

AMY WALTER: Perotian, yes. We’re moving away from the institutions.


GWEN IFILL: As in Ross Perot, for those…

AMY WALTER: As in Ross Perot.

GWEN IFILL: … who don’t remember those wonderful days.



GWEN IFILL: Michael.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No. No, I think Amy is exactly right.

And the other thing is that, you now, what happens to public feeling about government, it goes down when there are big mistakes. After Vietnam, people said our government made a big mistake in Southeast Asia — Watergate, the same thing.

In 2001, there was a feeling after that, that our government failed to keep us safe, obviously, on that day in September. But, even more than that, 2008, September, our government didn’t keep us Americans safe economically. Congress was asleep at the switch, regulatory agencies, certainly the executive branch. And that was such a huge malfunction, that I think there are going to be consequences from that for a long time.

AMY WALTER: Well, and FEMA, obviously.


AMY WALTER: Katrina was…

GWEN IFILL: Katrina.


AMY WALTER: … was absolutely a meltdown of institutions.

ANDREW KOHUT: One of the positive consequences of all this bad stuff is, this was a record decade for political engagement.

In 2000, 54 percent of the eligible electorate turned out. By ’04 and ’08, that was up above 60 percent, big, big numbers. And we also saw that in ’06.

One of the downsides of the political engagement is the extent of polarization that we have seen in this decade, larger differences between the way Democrats and Republicans think about most things than in the 1990s.

GWEN IFILL: But if you say at the same time that most people don’t — party identification has gone down, does the polarization matter as much as it would have if everybody identifies Republican or Democrat? Is it possible that everybody in the middle in this decade are — they are the ones who are steering where the boat goes?

ANDREW KOHUT: They are pulling the lever. I mean, Obama was elected because of the independents. President Bush won his narrow second-term victory because those independents were more confident of his ability to deal with terrorism and the foreign threats than John Kerry.

So, yes, the number of independents is very salient, but keep in mind that the one thing that we have seen is a really very politicized decade, compared to the 1990s.

AMY WALTER: And what is fascinating, too, is, if you then put technology on top of it, it is not just that more people are getting engaged, but their voices are able to be heard in a way they haven’t before.

Nobody would have thought 10 years ago you could make your own video, post it up on the computer, and have an influence on people you have never, ever met, and Facebook and all of those things. I think that — whether the number of people remain engaged, in terms of the total, isn’t, I think, as interesting — as important, fundamentally, as just the way that individual people feel like they can make a difference in the way they engage.

ANDREW KOHUT: But there is an opportunity to say something positive.

GWEN IFILL: Keep going.


AMY WALTER: There we go. Good. Yay! We need something positive.


ANDREW KOHUT: This is the decade of the information revolution.


ANDREW KOHUT: At the beginning of the decade, 4 percent of people were connected to computers on a fast basis. It is 65 percent, 72 percent total.

The Internet is all-encompassing. Most people use the Internet. It has led to search. It’s led to social networks that shape people’s — the way people lead their lives in ways that were unimaginable 10 years ago.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you could argue — you could argue that Barack Obama took advantage of that trend to get elected.

ANDREW KOHUT: Absolutely.

AMY WALTER: Absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: What ever happened, Michael, to small government?


GWEN IFILL: That used to be the mantra, the thing that could get you elected, run against Washington, run against government. And now we are in an unprecedented era of big government.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: 2009, huge budget deficits, a stimulus package that was led by Barack Obama to make sure that a second Great Depression would not happen, as it didn’t.

By we see that the era of small government is back again next year, because there is every indication that what Republicans are going to say next year is, you know, don’t talk about a second Great Depression. Talk about the fact that this is the most big-government president, at least in recent times, ultimately will lead to a rise in taxes, not good for America.

They will use that in the midterm campaign.


GWEN IFILL: Feels a little bit like being on a treadmill, though, Amy, this cycle that we are on.


AMY WALTER: The cycle that we go, right. It’s the sort of the boom and the bust. And, you know, I think that it is true that you are going see members of Congress trying to find ways to distance themselves from Washington.

And I think that has been something of the trend for a while now, because of scandals and because of the association with Washington has never been particularly positive. But what you are seeing now in the way that candidates are positions themselves is, all right, sure, yes, there was the bank bailout, and then the auto bailout, and some other things that we had to do, but, fundamentally, we’re going to get this is the only way to get the country back on track.

And they’re going to try to talk more specifically about what they are doing, personally, than what Congress or the government is doing.

GWEN IFILL: Andy, what about how — the way the world sees us? We now see ourselves differently, for various reasons. But the world sees the United States differently at the end of this decade than they did at the beginning.

ANDREW KOHUT: Oh, for sure. This is the “America against the world” decade. Anti-Americanism spiraled almost out of control through — for much of the decade in response to…

GWEN IFILL: Right after 9/11.


ANDREW KOHUT: Right after 9/11. Well, we had a little bit of sympathy for about a year. But, then, with the onset of Iraq and discontent with President Bush’s approach to foreign policy, we saw America’s numbers really go south. And there was a lot not only concern about President Bush. It extended into the broader question of worry about America’s unchecked and unrivaled power.

Now, with President Obama, some of those numbers have gone back down, but there still is a continuing concern about the exercise of American power. And you could see the way it began to play out as President Obama announced more troops for Afghanistan and the backlash that began to create.

That’s going to be with us as a consequence of this decade. People worry — people around the world worry about the way the United States conducts itself in dealing with its problems, dealing with terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: Final thought, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I think the flip side of that is, you know, what Americans think our future is in the world.

There is every indication that many more Americans than in 2000 now think that, ultimately, within three decades or so, China will be the most powerful nation on Earth, not the United States. If that happens, that is going to have all sorts of consequences, huge anger in this country, people who are accustomed to being on top.

And, if that is the way they feel, I think they will look back on this decade and say that, during these past 10 years, maybe more decisions were made that had to do with China rising to that dominant position than almost any other.

GWEN IFILL: And we will gather at the end of the next decade, hopefully, at this table and talk about it again.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It would be nice to think.


GWEN IFILL: Michael Beschloss, Amy Walter, Andy Kohut, thank you, all, very much.