As August winds down, the summer of ’09 is about to finish and it was a strange one. Here in the Northeast it was an unusually cool and wet summer, while out West they had record heat, as the oddities of global climate change start showing themselves. While there is still a week to go before school starts (for me a better measure of summer’s end than the vernal equinox), I have some reflections on the summer of 2009.
Here in the US it was a “letdown summer.” Perhaps inevitably, the hope garnered by electing a new, charismatic and exciting President gave way to the recognition that the problems we face as a nation are huge, and the President may be inspiring, but is not magic. President Obama himself is learning the difference between a campaign and governing. The former is built on ambition and ideas, the latter on results. But results are hard to come by, and the opposition fights tough.
Although Obama’s approval ratings remain good, they’ve come back to earth, and the country is worried about the on going budget problems and recession. Even as Japan and many European countries are starting to see positive growth numbers, the US finds itself still mired in bad news. This is not likely to change. The US started from a high point built on trade deficits and a consumer economy driven by easy credit and cheap foreign goods. The Europeans and Japanese never went that route; even with high governmental debt they maintained stricter credit regimes and avoided high trade deficits. In the heady times earlier this decade this made them appear behind the US in economic health, but in actuality it has meant a less severe recession.
The crisis is global, however, and no one is out of the woods. Americans are starting to realize this will take more than a new President to solve, and that this isn’t just another economic cycle. Obama can recover — Reagan and Clinton each dipped farther their first term — but he’s confronting the nitty gritty of real world governance, as the public confronts the resilience of real world problems.
Other aspects of the summer just seemed weird. With the first black President and fears of assassination, Republican activists started coming to Presidential events armed. In town hall meetings those opposed to health care reform came out aggressively, often with strange accusations of “death panels” (referring to something begun in the Bush Administration, ironically). The impetus for change seemed to wane by late August. But strange political scandals also were also brewing. Governor Sanford of South Carolina disappeared for a weekend, claiming at first that he had been hiking the Appalachian trail, then ultimately admitting he was with his Argentinian soul mate mistress. Another affair by Sen. Ensign (with weird money exchanges), and the strange resignation of Alaska’s Governor Palin all assured that political spectacle would trump political discourse.
Michael Jackson’s death, of course, was the big news. Fitting that in a strange summer the bizarre death of one of the strangest celebrities of our era would take center stage. In a way he symbolizes some of the cultural ills that brought us to this crisis: he was so addicted to material wealth that he lost sight of what gives life meaning. He tried to change himself, seek weird external satisfactions, and ultimately drowned himself in drugs and escapism. He had it all, success, fame and wealth, but it wasn’t enough.
On the international scene things have been relatively quiet, but disquieting. Afghanistan spirals into deeper tumult, threatening to become Obama’s Vietnam. It doesn’t appear the US can win without a massive increase in force levels (and even then nothing’s guaranteed), but the public both does not want another major military venture, nor does it want to see the Taliban come back to power. In Iraq the US has withdrawn from center stage, but violence remains intense and things could explode at any time.
In terms of the economy, politics, world events, and the weather, one gets the feeling that the strange and somewhat uneventful summer of 2009 represents the world on edge. As the hope for change fades with the harsh light of reality, there is real fear that the economy will spiral further downward, and the foreign conflicts Obama inherited will become his undoing. Though he inherited them, they are his now, and he is responsible for the choices moving forward.
For me personally, it was a summer full of work. I taught two summer courses (with the honors course especially engaging and enjoyable), as well as summer experience. We are still in the midst of our never ending yard project, which has entailed a clearing in the back, a drainage system, and attempts now to get soil to stay down and grass to grow. On top of that, course preparation, starting a research project, and meetings have meant that except for a few weekend days or evenings, the summer has been one of constant work. Yet I don’t feel worn out by it. The physical work on projects was actually refreshing, and I like the results. Also, I needed the teaching work to pay for the summer projects. It was also a strange summer in that we had guests for over two months, disrupting the routine, but yet contributing greatly to the success of the summer projects.
So as the strange summer of 2009 ends, I have a sense of foreboding. Is inflation, stagflation or even hyperinflation just around the corner? What will happen with Afghanistan and Iraq? The situation between Israel and Iran seems to have been pushed from the limelight, but that could change at any time. Is al qaeda really subdued, or are they planning a return to center stage? Will Obama be able to follow through on changes he promised, or will the weight of budget deficits and political gridlock tie him down? I’m hoping for a good autumn, but I feel like we’re in the Hitchcock film The Birds, and the birds are all sitting on the wires and ledges, getting ready to pounce.
Despite that, I’m reading for the fall. I love the start of a new semester, am excited about my classes and hoping these ominous vibes of late summer are just the after effect of having no real time off.
Yet I’ve saved the strangest tidbit for last. In yesterday’s paper there was a picture so bizarre and previously unimaginable that I thought the universe must be going through some kind of major transition. Are the magnetic poles shifting? Are we nearing the end of the Mayan calendar? Because there, in a color photo, wearing Viking Purple and Gold was Brett Favre, Quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. It doesn’t get any stranger than that.