Jules Witcover

Any way you slice it, the decade from 2000 through 2009 was on the whole about as bad a stretch for Americans as many of us have endured in our lifetimes.

The terrorist catastrophe of Sept. 11, 2001, in which nearly 3,000 unsuspecting workers in New York's World Trade Center perished, was the worst attack ever on American soil, shattering our sense of security that had survived even the Cold War era of the nuclear faceoff.

It changed the relatively carefree way we lived, especially for travelers who had to go long distances for work or fun. The airport became as much an ordeal of inconvenience as a gateway to escapism. The ugly term "racial profiling" went beyond race to national origin and code of dress.

The notion of a possible "peace dividend" with the end of the Cold War was shattered as billions for homeland security swelled the federal budget. The decade's two wars, one of necessity in response to the attacks, the other of choice by an overreaching wartime president, sent defense spending climbing again.

Ten months before the hijacked planes hurtled into the Twin Towers, the United States Supreme Court had scarred the new decade by unprecedentedly choosing the president in an arguably partisan political decision, leaving the country deeply divided.

The new president, George W. Bush, quickly if temporarily brought unity with a swift military answer to the terrorists' attacks based in Afghanistan. But he eventually lost that unity with his diversion into Iraq that in time split the country.

In his misguided pursuit of building democracy in the Middle East through his radical, muscular foreign policy, he and his vice president eroded traditional American standards of conduct by supporting "rendition" and torture of war prisoners and suspected terrorists, diminishing America's international image.

At the same time at home, failure to monitor and police a loosely regulated banking industry and its practices plunged the nation in the latter years of the decade into its worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Public confidence was shaken to its core, eventually bankrupting giant corporations and spreading home foreclosures across the land.

A dismal byproduct of all the mayhem was the hardening of political partisanship in both major parties, producing legislative stalemate under both Republican and Democratic Congresses. The first year of the decade, with Democrat Bill Clinton concluding his eight years in the White House, and the next eight with Republican Bush there, all witnessed the phenomenon.

Although Democrat Barack Obama was able to capitalize on Bush's unpopularity with a promise to bring "change you can believe in," his election brought an even more intense GOP partisanship that regularly stymied his legislative agenda.

The mere threat of filibuster, which obliged the Senate Democratic leadership to labor repeatedly to find 60 votes on tests that in earlier years were decided by majority votes, tied the Senate up for months. With Senate Republicans solidly spurning Obama's perhaps naive bid for bipartisanship, one result was the unsightly bribery of a few Senate Democrats with legislative rewards simply to support their own party on health care reform.

In a jarring, almost incomprehensible spectacle, the Nobel Peace Prize committee awarded its jewel to Obama, a man who had just ordered the dispatch of 30,000 more American troops to fight in Afghanistan. The award seemed little more than a recognition that he was not Bush, or at best was a promissory note on the expectation that he would change the U.S. course in foreign policy.

Obama in turn rewarded the peace crusaders in Oslo with a lecture on the validity of "just wars," in reference not only to the fight against Nazism but obviously the pursuit of the 9/11 perpetrators in Afghanistan, still underway. Unmentioned in this regard by Obama was the American invasion of Iraq, still being mopped up.

Obama's ambitious agenda for the new decade has been hampered by what was left him by Bush, but his own seeming accommodations so far do not shout of the change he promised as a candidate. With at least three years as president to go, the jury is out.