In the run-up the and the end-of-January southern primaries and Super-Hyperforce-Monkeyball-February-5th giganto-primaries, the media has been focused like a laser on the candidate's personalities, slap-fights, and their appeal among the faithful of various parties, along with fluctuating standings in the polls and who may or may not have cried that day. A lot of folks have lamented the lack of substantive policy discussion in the mainstream media, despite the fact that most of the major candidates have release very detailed policy statements via their websites, making such discussion pretty easy. But we're missing another discussion as well: what will the America inherited by our next president (whoever he or she may be) look like?
Tonight's State of the Union Address, Bush's last, will not shed much light on this, largely because Bush is incapable of acknowledging even the tiniest of his failures, much less explaining how he's driven the country off the cliff over the past seven years. But you have only to stick your head out the window for a moment to realize that it's gonna look pretty dismal. When our next president takes office in January 2009, he or she will find shimself presiding over a broken America. It'll be a lot like moving into a trashed apartment whose former tenants were a bunch of party-preoccupied frat-boys -- torn carpets, cigarette butts overflowing in the sink, puke stains on the furniture and shit smeared on the walls of the bathroom. Except that Apartment America has no landlord to replace the carpets and paint the walls before President 44 arrives. So, P44 will have to spend a huge amount of time just cleaning up the place before making any of the myriad of improvements all of the candidates have promised their supporters.
While by-the-books recession for 2008 (or 2009) is not guaranteed, pretty much everyone (including the Fed) agrees things aren't looking so good, to say the least. The mortgage crash has yet to hit bottom (Wall Street types have been saying the housing slump is "at or near bottom" every month since April 2006 -- they're still all wrong), thanks to the labyrinthine mortgage backed securities structure dreamed up by the fabulously wealthy kings of the money-shuffler economy. The national debt is greater than ever, the budget deficit has ballooned from $0 in 1999 to an almost unfathomable amount today, and the dollar is so weak that India's Taj Mahal no longer even accepts it from tourists. Add to that middle and lower-class wage stagnation (and deflation in many cases), skyrocketing health care costs, the recent job numbers (only 18,000 new jobs in December, and unemployment at a two-year high 5%), and oil prices which are flirting with (in inflation adjusted dollars) the prices of the early 1980s, when they last kicked off a round of rapid-pace inflation. Even if we don't actually end up in recession, the economic wind-chill makes it feel like we're already there.
The Middle East offers no better news for P44. Yes, troop deaths in Iraq appear to be back to pre 2007 levels. Great. We've still killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, lost some four thousand soldiers and subjected tens of thousands of other to debilitating physical and psychological wounds, basically decimated a country, driven yet another society into near-theocracy, and created a new training ground for would-be terrorists (no, they were not there before we were). By the admission of our top generals, our troop levels in Iraq are unsustainable, and it will take generations to re-build our armed forces, not to mention to pay back the estimated trillions of dollars the whole misadventure will have ultimately cost. And that assumes P44 will make the tough decision to pull-out, almost certainly resulting in additional short-term sectarian bloodshed. Such a pull-out, which I see as much-needed, will dominate the news and political cycle, and make any other work, domestic or foreign, nearly impossible during its duration. Plus, thanks to our war in Iraq, we've pushed previously (mostly) secular governments in Turkey and Lebanon toward more rigid theocratic governance, and allowed both Al Qaeda and the Taliban to re-constitute in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And all of that does not even consider that the path to Israeli/Palestinian peace has had basically no progress since the 1990s, further preventing the region from stabilizing.
As for energy and the environment (which go hand in hand) -- well, let's just agree that energy continues to get increasingly more expensive and the environment progressively worse, no real progress has been made of realistically addressing either issue, stamp that with our big "no progress made / eight years squandered / P44 basically starting from negative territory" stamp, and move on.
Last, P44 will find an additional obstacle to addressing all of these issues, not to mention his or her forward-looking plans for the country: America's standing in the world is greatly diminished from what it was a decade ago. Thanks to our political failures in Iraq, in environmental policy, our sagging economy and the simple "fuck you" attitude President Bush and company have applied to international relations over the past seven years, America's approval rating around the world has plummeted. Our weakened dollar and huge debt gives us less positive economic clout than we once enjoyed. Our weakened military, the direct result of our Iraq misadventure, leaves us no military leverage in political affairs, and no way to help even with humanitarian intervention. And the rapid rise of China's economy and world influence from "up and comer" to "potential rival" means that many nations which once sought the U.S.'s favor, despite a dislike for our policies, now have another place to turn.
The bottom line: P44, whatever he or she promises in the campaign, is likely to spend his or her first four years (at least) just bailing out a ship which, thanks to arrogance and shortsightedness on a monumental scale, has begun to take on serious water. Let's hope it is only four years (it is likely to take much longer), and that he or she is up to the task.