WASHINGTON -- Christmas, the season of good will, charity and hope, is a time when America, at least for a while, seems more united as a nation and as a people.
Goodness knows there are many things that divide us throughout the year, but perhaps this is an appropriate time to focus on what holds us together, what we have to be grateful for, and what is right and good in our country and much of the world, too.
The world of course is still a dangerous place, even more dangerous after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But in a spirit of unity that we had not seen perhaps since World War II, we recovered and took a number of sensible steps to guard against another attack.
We have kept our country safer for the past half dozen years -- despite the fear-mongers who maintain that another attack will happen again sooner or later, regardless of our precautions. I do not think that is foreordained as long as we remain vigilant and keep the protections in place that have, if truth be told, foiled many plots against us. We must never let down our guard.
Americans are deeply pessimistic right now about the country's direction, and especially about the economy. But I continue to believe that much of this negative feeling has a lot to do with the news media's slanted reporting on just about everything, focusing on the bad news and ignoring the good.
More Americans are working than at any time in our history. Despite the housing decline and credit crunch, more people own their own home than ever before and most homeowners are paying their mortgages on time.
As for the subprime debacle, it took us a while, but we seem to be fixing the excesses that led to it. The Federal Reserve Board has approved new rules aimed at preventing deceptive lending practices and disqualifying buyers who lie about their incomes in order to obtain an unaffordable mortgage.
This has been a year of turmoil in the financial markets but it was also a year when the stock market soared to record heights, and then, typically, fell back a bit to take only modest gains, allowing the economy catch up and move on to the next plateau. With half the country invested in stocks, more than any nation on earth, a majority of Americans now own a chunk of corporate America.
Americans continue to believe that we don't make much anymore, that everything we buy comes from abroad. But the truth is that U.S. factories produce more and sell more abroad than at any time in our history. This year, American exports will exceed $1.4 trillion, up from about $1 trillion the year before.
We hear a lot about outsourcing, but little or nothing about insourcing. U.S. automakers are having their troubles, but Japanese companies like Honda and Toyota have been building factories here as fast as they can, employing American autoworkers. Both countries benefit from this.
We spend a lot of time bemoaning how polarized our country is and how downright nasty political campaigns have become. But when you think of it, much of this is just the healthy, sometimes excessive, exercise in democracy that is necessary to the nature of the American experiment. We fight hard over political issues in our campaigns, as we always have, but eventually the votes are counted and we move on to the business of government and the life of our nation.
For most of this year, Democrats and Republicans bitterly fought over an energy bill to boost fuel-efficiency standards and help make the U.S. a little more self-sustainable. They also battled over the 2008 budget that became a test of wills over unrestricted funding for the Iraq war.
But last week both houses of Congress agreed on an energy bill by an overwhelming margin, and President Bush signed it. The budget bill passed both chambers too, with the Senate giving Bush the war money he asked for, without the withdrawal deadline anti-war politicians had demanded.
Things are looking up elsewhere in the world as well. It is clear that Bush's counterinsurgency in Iraq has substantially lessened the violence there and to a large degree has stabilized a democracy still in its infancy. Iraqi soldiers are slowly taking over more of their country's defenses and thousands of Iraqi citizens are slowly returning to their homeland.
Our relations with Great Britain, Germany and France have never been better. A new attempt to forge a viable peace plan between Israel and the Palestinian government shows renewed hope of succeeding. North and South Korea have begun tentative steps for useful exchanges between the two estranged nations.
So there is much to be hopeful about and grateful for in this season of "great joy and good tidings" as we celebrate the birth of the Christ child.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
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