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Seven Years Of Decline
Washington Post
By Rahm Emanuel
Monday, January 28, 2008; Page A218

At the dawn of the 21st century, conventional wisdom was that America held unmatched cultural, economic and military power. George F. Will wrote: "It is good to be alive in America at the end of the first (but not the last) American century." In late 1999, Charles Krauthammer wrote: "No other nation has exercised such military, economic, diplomatic and cultural reach since Rome. . . . America bestrides the world like a colossus."

Boy, have times changed.

As 2007 drew to a close, a Newsweek International cover featured the image of a bruised Uncle Sam slumped in a boxing ring, under the headline: "Can America Get Back on Top?"

So what happened? How did we go from dominant military, economic and cultural superpower to battered fighter in the corner?

As President Bush prepares to deliver his final State of the Union address today, it's fair to judge his tenure by assessing the country he inherited and the country he will leave behind. By any examination, the Bush administration has weakened the nation:

George W. Bush inherited a country with a $236 billion surplus. He engaged in seven years of deficit spending that will leave America with more than $3.5 trillion in new debt.

Bush inherited a middle class whose incomes increased more than $6,000 between 1993 and 2001. Median household incomes have dropped over $1,000 since he took office. During his presidency, health-care premiums have doubled, from about $6,000 to $12,000 per family.

Bush inherited a military that had all active-duty Army divisions rated at the highest readiness levels and that was capable of fighting a two-front war. He will leave behind a military facing the worst readiness crisis in a generation, with not a single active-duty or reserve brigade "fully combat ready."

Bush inherited a nation that was respected on the international stage; he will leave behind one reviled by many around the world. A Pew poll of 10 nations found that in 2001, 58 percent of respondents viewed America favorably; today, that number is 39 percent.

The optimistic predictions of the late 20th century have disappeared. Now Americans and the world are wondering if we can get back on top.

I believe we can. But we must be prepared to rebuild America at home and abroad. At home, we must prepare for the challenges that come with globalization. We need a New Deal for the New Economy -- a plan that helps address Americans' economic anxieties and prepares workers for the future.

We must reform the way we educate the next generation of workers to ensure that our nation stays competitive. In an era in which you earn what you learn, America should do more to make college affordable and require all students to receive one year of training after high school -- be it at a community college, technical school or university. The GI Bill and universal high school education have proved that investing in human capital yields tremendous dividends.

Building on the successes of covering segments of the population through Medicare, Medicaid, the military's Tricare program and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the next two populations on the road to universal health care should be our two most vulnerable groups: children and early retirees.

Support for the development of new energy-efficient technologies could help make energy less expensive for consumers and businesses, help protect the environment, create millions of jobs, and make our nation energy independent. These new energy technologies have the potential to do what the information technology boom has done for our economy during the past 20 years.

Universal savings accounts would give workers more control over their economic future and their retirement. Like 401(k) plans, these accounts would supplement, not supplant, Social Security. Employers and employees would contribute 1 percent of paychecks on a tax-deductible basis, and workers could make additional contributions if they chose.

Overseas, we must begin a responsible redeployment of troops from Iraq and demonstrate to the world that Iraqis must take responsibility for their own country. The redeployment of troops would help end our readiness crisis and would allow our military to rebuild and refocus its efforts in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban are reconstituting.

Our foreign policy should include a diplomatic offensive to win back the international goodwill that has been squandered over the past seven years. And America should take a more aggressive role at the United Nations in the fight against global warming.

Implementing the New Deal for the New Economy, restoring our position on the world stage and changing direction in Iraq won't be easy. Change won't happen overnight. But after eight years of George W. Bush, enacting these domestic initiatives and repairing our foreign policy are essential if we want America to get out of the corner and back to the center of the ring.

The writer, a Democratic representative from Illinois, is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

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