There is an old political saying: "When the economy is bad, the economy is the issue; when the economy is good, something else is the issue." Right now the economy is the issue.
But that might not be the case by the end of 2010. We appear to be moving to a second consecutive quarter of positive growth, marking the formal end of recession. It will take a while, however, before ordinary citizens will be able to feel it. The present 10 percent unemployment rate is unlikely to recede to even the 8 percent level until mid-2010. Even as bank lending and business expansion pick up, employment will be slow to grow. There is a lag of several months, after recession's formal end, before unemployment begins to drop appreciably. The depth of the economic crises has made managers risk averse; they will not rebuild their work forces until they are sure stable growth lies ahead.
Beyond normal indicators, there is an overlay of populist rage over actions taken in 2009 which will not disappear as employment begins to pick up and bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures slow down. The billions in taxpayer dollars allocated to big banks, the auto industry, the mortgage industry, and politically favored entities in stimulus, health-care and defense legislation will not be forgiven easily by voters and taxpayers. The "tea-party" movement, derided by mainstream media as a convocation of kooks, has its share of political oddballs but it also consists of ordinary people of all political persuasions who are just plain fed up with what they see as the unfairness of policies directed to the well being of big shots and high riders. Even as the economy recovers, this economic anger will linger.
Looking overseas, keep in mind that the war in Afghanistan already is the longest in American history. American troops will not begin withdrawal anywhere near the mid-2011 target set by President Obama at the end of his recent policy review. Over 2009, Taliban strength has grown in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The only saving element in all of this is that strong majorities in both countries are opposed to Taliban takeovers.
Every U.S. troop in Afghanistan costs approximately $1 million in taxpayer funds. The buildup planned in 2010 will keep costs and casualties rising. The building of effective Afghan military and police forces will not be easily done. One of our basic problems is that Pashtun tribal members are notably missing from military command. The parallels are not direct but one could compare present Pashtun grievances and outright rebellion in Afghanistan to Sunni unrest in Iraq at a time when it was perceived that the U.S. was favoring Shiite governance there.
In Pakistan, by far the more important of the two countries, there is a strong strain of anti-Americanism and weak governance. Military and intelligence elements continue to consort and even finance Islamic fundamentalist movements. We should not misguidedly believe fresh billions in foreign assistance for Pakistan will change either popular or official opinion.
How, then, can we ever leave? It is not as if either a Hanoi or even a Baghdad central government were prepared to restore stability and fight the fundamentalists. Only a dramatic event — such as the apprehension or killing of Osama bin Laden and his principal lieutenants, and of Taliban leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — would provide a backdrop for gradual withdrawal. In the end, we may have to accept some form of Taliban power-sharing in Afghanistan as the price of our exit.
Obama surely will face another agonizing review before mid-2011. Meantime domestic discontent is certain to rise as casualties and spending mount in a war that has no apparent end. If in 2009 the economy was the issue, in 2010 Afghanistan will be the issue.
As for health-care and other domestic business, I have some major concern. I felt great elation in 1965 when the Johnson-Humphrey administration enacted Medicare and Medicaid, and I was heartened when President George W. Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy led a bipartisan effort to enact a Medicare prescription-drug benefit. I feel no emotion whatever — except a vague foreboding — as the Obama health-sector makeover is on the verge of congressional enactment.
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