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When Exactly Did America Stop Being Great?



On Friday afternoon, in the midst of a Twitter back-and-forth on subjects ranging from Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. elections to Hillary Clinton's popular-vote margin, I asked former state representative Mike Hager—until last year, the House majority leader—since he wanted Donald Trump to, as the saying goes, Make America Great Again, when he thought America was last great.

His answer, in Twitterese: "after 1/20/2008 = not great, after 1/20/2017 = great." (I'm going to assume, based on the context of our conversation, that he meant January 20, 2009—not 2008—as the date America became "not great," since that was the date of Barack Obama's inauguration.)

This was a remarkably illuminating answer, considering Hager was recently one of the most powerful policy makers in the state. Consider, after all, what America was like the day Obama swore the oath of office. The unemployment rate was 7.9 percent (it would rise to 10 percent nine months after he took office), and America lost 818,000 jobs that month alone. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had cratered to 7,949. The federal deficit stood at $1.4 trillion. The country's GDP was shrinking at a rate of 6.3 percent. Foreclosure filings had spiked by 221 percent between 2006 and 2008, and the real estate market had all but collapsed. Roughly 15 percent of Americans were without health insurance. And, needless to say, the U.S. was bogged down in long, bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, its international reputation in ruins.

This, according to Hager, was the last time America achieved greatness. According to reality, however, the country George W. Bush bequeathed Obama was an unmitigated disaster.

Now consider what it's like some twenty-nine hundred days later, as Obama prepares to turn over the most powerful position on earth to former reality TV star Donald Trump. Unemployment: 4.6 percent, with 216,000 jobs created in November (a record eighty-first consecutive month of private-sector job growth). The Dow: flirting with 20,000. The deficit: $587 billion, down more than $800 million from 2009. GDP increased by a healthy 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2016. September 2016 marked a 129-month low in foreclosure filings. Thanks to the now-endangered Affordable Care Act, by 2015 thirteen million more Americans had health insurance. And we wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and extended an olive branch to Cuba and Iran, the latter of which Bush included in his "axis of evil."

This isn't to say the Obama presidency has been flawless—far from it. We've seen the rise of ISIS and drone assassinations, encroachments on civil liberties and the prosecutions of whistleblowers, the unfolding disaster in Syria and Russian incursions into both the Ukraine and American elections. We saw a president who unwisely yielded to Republican demands for austerity and whose administration took a pass on prosecuting war criminals and banksters. There are also ongoing issues related to income inequality, criminal justice reform, and the frightening rise of the authoritarianism-and-racism-streaked populism that gave us Donald Trump.

But by nearly every metric, the country Trump will inherit January 20 is in better shape than it was eight years ago. So, as I asked Hager, what was it about the Obama years that represented a period of not-greatness, a hellscape from which Trump must save us?

Hager's response—an alleged trampling of the First, Second, and Tenth Amendments, plus Benghazi—was reflexive piffle, but I suspect no real answer stands up to scrutiny—to the actual facts of Obama's record, rather than the version propagated by the Fox News set. Obama's not the guy talking about opening up libel laws, and you can still receive an assault rifle for Christmas. States' "rights" to discriminate against transgender students, restrict African Americans' ballot access, and spew carbon into the atmosphere have indeed come under attack. Unlike Hager—and most of his North Carolina Republican colleagues—I don't think that's a bad thing.

This article appeared in print with the headline: "What is it that really makes America great?"

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