I see 2008 as another year of complacency both in Seattle and in Washington state, but as one of transition nationally. I see 2009 as a year of difficulty but also of hopefulness.
Here at home our state and local tax codes remain stunningly regressive and our revenue base riddled by special favors for the politically connected, even though state and local governance is dominated by nominally liberal Democratic officeholders. The passage of Proposition 1 (Sound Transit 2) was an atrocity against regional taxpayers. Its cost goes well beyond that of Boston's Big Dig. The light rail system it will finance will take fewer passengers to fewer destinations for far more tax money than alternative bus systems would have done. It also will take many years to construct. It is an example of how special-interest money can overwhelm the public interest.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels proposes to make similar wasteful transportation investments in his Mercer Project and an extended streetcar system. We shall see the options chosen for Alaskan Way Viaduct and 520 bridge replacements/repairs. Our Seattle school system remains deplorable even though more constructive School Board members, and a new superintendent, are in place. Local elections in 2009 will give us a chance both to replace Nickels and City Council members who have over a long period talked like Henry Wallace but walked like Benito Mussolini. Candidates of quality need to step forward.
The Obama campaign and election were significant not just because old racial barriers were broken but because Obama's basic appeal — that of ending polarization and reaching across political and ideological barriers — had been badly needed over the past two presidencies. His temperament and intelligence appear to suit him ideally for difficult economic times when citizens will need to make shared sacrifice. His promising beginning could be sidetracked, however, if his unity platform gives way to the usual single-interest and single-issue agendas that increasingly have dominated national politics over two decades. His first test will come in a month when he will make decisions about the shape and form of the necessary financial and economic rescue measures. His Inaugural speech, I suspect, will be similar to John F. Kennedy's in 1961, asking us to consider "not what our country can do for you [but] what you can do for your country."
The times make good and great Presidents but Presidents also make their times. This is the opportunity facing Obama now. Just as our financial and economic systems are being forced into rationalization by the current crisis, Obama and Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders can recast decisionmaking constructively.
The biggest change in 2009 must come from ourselves. Greatest Generation and Korean War-generation members have known hard times and sacrifice. The more numerous boomers now running things are, for the most part, confronting such challenges for the first time. Will we move, as we should, from a culture of individual and group greed and excess to one of genuine community? External forces are pushing us that way. But will we do it? That is the big question of the year ahead.