2008 in Review

No one can legitimately deny that 2008 was an interesting year.

Any presidential election year is bound to draw disproportionate attention, but this year particularly so. The US electorate elected its first African-American as president, Senator Barack Obama. Most importantly, the electoral race did not center on the question race. With the exception of a couple of ill chosen remarks about looking like the faces on currency [1], Obama avoided playing the “race card.” No one of any stature suggest that race disqualified Obama as president. There was no so-called “Bradley effect” where Americans would publicly say they would vote for a black candidate, but in the privacy of the voting booth allow a latent racism or fear prevent them from casting a vote for a black person. Americans were nearly as unprejudiced in the private deliberations as in their public statements. Americans clearly deserve more credit than they deserve. It is hard to imagine any other country that would elect a racial minority of that country as its chief executive.

Early in the year, Shelby Steele, was not enthusiastic about chances for a black president. In his view, any black had to be non-threatening to the white majority and not appear to be a candidate whose primary message was race. On the other hand such a candidate would not seem as an authentic black to fellow African-Americans. As it turns out, once it became clear that Obama had a realistic opportunity to win the presidential election, the prospect of a black American president excited African-Americans. There was no litmus test of authenticity.

This was embarrassing year for journalism. The enthusiasm for Obama was  so great that many lost even the appearance of objectivity.  The first victim of this bias was Senator Hillary Clinton who was regularly portrayed negatively by MSNBC. Hillary even began to appreciate Fox News. Actually, the Democratic primary was an amusing battle between the politics of gender and the politics of race with both candidates anxious to claim the mantel of representing a victim class without the weakness of appearing to be victim.

After the election there were media mea cuplas. The ombudsman of the Washington Post wrote:

“The Post provided a lot of good campaign coverage, but readers have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama. My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that they are right on both counts.”

There were similar self-analysis from other organizations. The real question is why such retrospection and assessments were not forthcoming when they could have improved coverage during the campaign. The behavior of the main-stream-media is not healthy for democracy.

The biggest news of the year may have been news that fell off the front pages: the Iraq War. Largely because of the troop surge and the associated strategy, the War in Iraq is succeeding. Perhaps  the most important measure for Americans, the increased security in Iraq has resulted in dramatic reductions in American lost of life. This month thus far 14 Americans had died and only seven from hostile actions. Of course, any loss is devastating for the soldier’s family, but no one can deny that Iraq is largely now a settled issue — mostly as a consequence of the effectiveness of the American military.

Unfortunately, the victory will be a silent one as American troops are allowed to slowly return home as Iraqis become more and more responsible for their own security. In part because the media does not want to grant President Bush the credit for an important success Americans and troops will not enjoy the satisfaction of victory — just compensation for their sacrifice.

Finally, this is the year that the economy fell into a dramatic recession which has dramatically reduced stock values and real estate prices. Certainly, the business cycle has not been repealed and we can always expect episodic recessions. This particular recession was initiated under a complex interaction between public and private mistakes. The housing market was oversold largely under the encouragement of government to extend loans to people who could not afford them — the “sub-prime” crisis. The increase in oil prices helped trigger some of the defaults.

This crisis was then magnified by credit default swaps where  companies in a non-transparent fashion had traded risk. This radical increase in liability brought down many investment houses. As a consequence, the federal government had to intervene with massive bailouts (with dubious salutary effect) to rescue irresponsible behavior by large Wall Street investment house. We can hope that 2009 with mark the beginning of the recovery.

[1] Barack Obama: “‘Well, you know, he’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills and, and they’re going to send out nasty emails.”

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