News & Views from 465 California Street

A Difficult Decade

Clint Reilly

With only two days left in the first decade of the 21st century, it’s hardly a surprise that many Americans are heaving a sigh of relief. The rest are likely holding their breath until the clock strikes midnight.

And who could blame them? By virtually any metric, the last 10 years have been extraordinarily difficult ones for the United States.

The Internet gold rush that began in the mid 90s had reached fever pitch by early 2000. I remember speaking to a Berkeley freshman at the time who was starting an online business from his dorm room. I asked him about his business plan.

“I don’t need a business plan,” he told me. “I could take my mom public right now and make a million dollars!”

Needless to say, the dot-com era ran headlong into a buzz saw in March of 2000. When investors realized that a bad company with “.com” at the end was still a bad company, the bubble exploded.

Eight months later, Americans went to the polls on Election Day to cast their vote for president. No one anticipated the constitutional crisis around the corner. For more than a month, Americans were treated to daily dispatches about “hanging chads” and clandestine legal maneuverings as George W. Bush and Al Gore vied for Florida’s 25 electoral votes. In the end, Bush claimed the presidency after an extraordinary 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court.

The Bush v. Gore ruling hinted at the level of bitter political polarization that would mark the next nine years. Despite Bush’s pledge to bridge the divide, it took a horrifying national disaster to bring the country together again.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 set in motion a series of events that would close the door on America’s post-Cold War era of unchallenged peace and prosperity.

While the World Trade Center ruins still smoldered, United States special forces began the initial stages of the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban were quickly routed, but the “victory” was illusory. Eight years later, American soldiers remain in the forbidding Afghan mountains and deserts.

At least the war in Afghanistan had almost universal support at the outset. Not so with our long national nightmare in Iraq.

In March of 2003, President Bush made the case to Americans that Saddam Hussein held dangerous stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and therefore must be eliminated. The intelligence was dubious, but we went in anyway.

If the invasion was easy, the occupation was anything but. Torn by sectarian violence and teeming with foreign terrorists, Iraq spiraled out of control for four long years. Only a massive U.S. troop surge was able to turn the tide.  Today, the Iraqi government remains both weak and dysfunctional, and Baghdad is still regularly rocked by terrorist bombs.

Americans suffered yet another dramatic blow in August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. New Orleans was virtually destroyed. Nearly 2,000 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. People around the world watched video footage of the destruction, wondering how anything so wretched could happen in America.

Last year appeared to offer a break from the succession of historically awful events. The 2008 presidential campaign offered an epochal battle between two superstar Democrats in the primary and a clear choice between two contrasting visions in the general election. Overwhelmingly, weary Americans were drawn to Barack Obama’s message of hope and change.

Still, the ’00s had one last gut punch in store.

Over the course of the year, the financial markets began to wobble. America’s real estate bubble had detonated. Venerable names in high finance began to topple one after another until finally the wheels came off. Only an unprecedented intervention by the federal government to save the financial system kept the American economy from total destruction.

The aftermath has been like nothing the country has experienced since the Great Depression. The waning days of the decade have been marked by mounting home foreclosures, mass unemployment and a growing sense of collective anxiety.

I’m sure that many Americans are glad to close the book on the ’00s and head into 2010. After all we’ve been through, it will be nice to have a fresh start.

Comments (6)

  • Couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s easy to forget how much has happened to this country in the last 10 years. We tend to only focus on the latest thing in the news. When the history books are written, it will look like the 2000′s were a political, economic and social tsunami for the United States.

    Thanks for tying it all up as we steam into the 10′s. It’s good for people to be reminded of exactly what we’ve been through so we can prepare for the next decade a little better.

    Posted by: Tommy Bowman | December 29th, 2009 at 8:44 am

  • It was a truly awful decade. I can’t help but think that the deluge of misery brought this country to some important realizations that hopefully will blossom further;such as:

    1. Igniting a new generation to political action and hope with a change in politics. I think many of our young people were inspired by Obama’s message of change. Without Bush’s nightmare we may not have come to this kind of change.
    2. Boomers in particular seem to be gaining insights into spirituality and seeking compassion. I believe there is a rise in spirituality and a lovely new organization started by Karen Armstrong, Charter for Compassion. is a great example. Seems as though the fundamentalist take over of religion and spirtituality is effectively being challenged.
    3. The dot com bust and current financial crisis may help center our nation back to our core values and escape the rancid materialism of our recent past.

    I am looking forward to a new decade and while this one was hard, perhaps it served some good purpose in putting us on a road of realignment which we sorely need.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | December 29th, 2009 at 11:23 am

  • Wow. It’s like a bad recession followed by the electoral equivalent of Watergate, then Pearl Harbor, simultaneous Korean & Vietnam wars, the 1906 SF earthquake and the Great Depression, all rolled into one. Bring on 2010…

    Posted by: Decloedt | December 29th, 2009 at 12:48 pm

  • Hi Clint,

    Once again. Great job in todays paper, “A Difficult Decade”

    This will be a great point of discussion when we return to school next week.

    Thanks again

    John S

    Posted by: John S. | December 29th, 2009 at 1:40 pm

  • Not to mention personal tragedies….

    Posted by: Mar Mar | January 1st, 2010 at 8:29 pm

  • Wait until 2020 when we will be ready to turn the chapter on this coming decade…….Obama has screwed us for generations with his irresponsible spending, national debt, health care reform, etc….There will be no prosperity only steps towards socialism.

    Posted by: Ty Webb | January 4th, 2010 at 5:14 pm

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