Amid all of the end-of-the-year hoopla surrounding wartime executive power, the upcoming debate on Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito and the controversy about renewing the Patriot Act, it's easy to lose perspective. This has been a year of complicated political situations, from Valerie Plame to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, from Jack Abramoff to Randy "Duke" Cunningham, from New Orleans to Iraq. With wall-to-wall media coverage blanketing us in details ranging from the fascinating to the dreary, perhaps we've lost the forest for the trees. Because amidst all the political turmoil, something grand happened this year: America's situation in the world improved by leaps and bounds.
At the end of 2004, grave doubts about the feasibility of democracy in Iraq remained. No vote had yet taken place; no written constitution had been ratified. But in January 2005, the Iraqi people swarmed to the polls, astounding election observers who believed the threat of violence would deter Iraqis from voting. Still, critics pointed out that the Sunni population had not turned out. On Dec. 15, even that shortcoming was remedied as the strong participation of Sunnis forced an extension of poll hours in some areas of Iraq. And in October, the Iraqi people ratified their Constitution.
There is still work to do, but the end is in sight -- victory is in sight. It is for that reason that the Bush administration, which has been so steadfast in refusing to set a hard pullout deadline, now speaks of drawing down troop levels. In less than three years, America and its allies have turned Iraq from a radical terrorist-funding dictatorship capable of threatening its neighbors into a laboratory of democracy in the Middle East. And 2005 was the turning point.
At the end of 2004, our economy was growing steadily. The unemployment rate had dropped over the course of the year, but many questioned if employment levels would continue to rise -- The New York Times snootily derided the country's "subpar job creation," citing President Bush's tax cuts. So much for that idea. In October 2005, the unemployment rate dropped below 5 percent for the first time since August 2001, and as of December, it is now hovering at 5 percent.
Over the past two years and four months, the economy has created 4.2 million new jobs. Labor productivity continued to rise this year, as it has risen every quarter since the first quarter of 2001; the productivity rate is currently rising faster than it has in 40 years. In the third quarter of 2005, the gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 4.1 percent, a solid indicator of economic health. Since 2002, the economy has created 2.3 million additional minority homeowners. And the holiday season this year was incredibly successful, with retail spending up 8.7 percent from the same period last year. All of this despite the economic effects of the continued War on Terror and the costs of a massive hurricane wiping one of America's largest cities from the map. Our economy remains vibrant and continues to grow.
At the end of 2004, Americans voted on which candidate would better handle the War on Terror. President Bush won. So far, so good. Since Sept. 11, law enforcement has broken up terrorist cells in New York, Oregon, California, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, North Carolina and Ohio, thanks to instruments like the Patriot Act. Terrorists caught overseas were mined for information -- information that has been extremely useful, as in the case of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, a top al-Qaeda mastermind.
Despite all of this good news, Americans remain pessimistic. Recent polls demonstrate rising support for President Bush, but that support remains well below 50 percent. While the economy continues to climb, only 38 percent of Americans support Bush's handling of the economy, according to CBS News. Americans also show low levels of support for Bush's foreign policy, at 36 percent, for his leadership in the fight against terrorism, at 48 percent, and his management of Iraq, at 36 percent. Over 60 percent of Americans feel that the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to an AP/Ipsos poll from early December.
Why are Americans so downhearted? Certainly, the media's focus on certain stories (FISA, Plame) at the expense of others (voting in Iraq, the economy) has dampened our enthusiasm while exacerbating our discontent. But at the end of 2005, let's pause for a moment and realize that despite 2005's tragedies, we are better off today than we were a year ago, or two years ago, or at any time since the attacks of Sept. 11. We are moving in the right direction. And 2006 will be even better.