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Let's be honest: 2021 wasn't all bad

The Hill logo The Hill 12/26/2021 Albert Hunt, opinion contributor
Let's be honest: 2021 wasn't all bad © Julia Nikhinson Let's be honest: 2021 wasn't all bad

This year I've probably been, in the immortal words of the late Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, too much of a "nattering nabob of negativism."

So, let's end the year on positive notes. Of course, for many of us the most positive development of 2021 is 340 days without Donald J. Trump in the White House.

There's other good news:

The economy is humming

The unemployment rate is down to 4.2 percent, the lowest since the pandemic hit, and it's expected to decline further next year. Economic and wage growth are robust.

"All the key indices, except inflation, are pointing strongly in the right direction," says Roger Altman, the senior chairman of Evercore, a leading global investment bank.

Total wages, including extra hours of work, are slightly outpacing inflation. More workers are quitting because of better opportunities. Household net worth is up an astounding 20 percent from a year earlier. Bloomberg reported in ten key measurements of the economy, Biden has the best first year record of any president in the last 50 years.

There are a few clouds.

A protracted resurgence of the COVID virus would unsettle the economy, a shorter spike not so much.

Most of all, the core inflation rate, minus volatile energy and food prices, is a worrisome 5 percent. The Federal Reserve plans to increase interest rates at least twice, probably three times, next year. If the bond market is right, the inflation pace will steadily drop over the next several years.

The Fed projects inflation will decline to 2.6 percent by year-end 2022. The Fed also sees unemployment falling to 3.5 percent with an historically impressive 4 percent growth rate. (Goldman Sachs lowered its growth projections for next year after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) seemed to kill Biden's social infrastructure bill.)

The celebration of Bob Dole

The Republican Senate leader and presidential candidate, who passed away at 98 this month, was honored by leaders of both parties; the National Cathedral was packed with Democrats as well as Republicans. In the front were Presidents Joe Biden and Bill Clinton and four current or former vice presidents. One of the eulogists was Democrat Tom Daschle, once Dole's counterpart as party leader in the Senate.


Video: ETF Edge, December 13, 2021 (CNBC)

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Dole could be a tough partisan, a slashing one in the early part of his long career, but he became an enormously effective leader, selectively reaching across the political aisle on big matters: anti-hunger measures, and the historic 1990 Americans for Disabilities Act. This is what brought the many tributes and that cross-section of the political world to his funeral.

I hope Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) noticed.

The Kentucky Republican has been a shrewd and powerful Senate leader, but today his legacy is as a campaign fund raiser extraordinaire and as a partisan "Grim Reaper" - thwarting Democratic initiatives, denying so much as a vote for Democratic Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, and then bending the rules to win partisan approval of conservative justices.

Yes, McConnell leads a caucus with more than a few strident right-wingers, but for 30 years Dole's Senate GOP caucus included the likes of North Carolina's Jesse Helms and Steve Symms of Idaho. McConnell needs some Dole-type achievements.

I used to revere the Senate as an institution. In the 1980s, I took each of my three young children there, just for the majesty of the place. Today I have a four-year-old grandchild, and the Senate is not on our bucket list. Instead, I just took him to the Zoo; it's more authentic.

A scandal-free Biden administration

That's the way it should be, but isn't always.

Think back four years ago: The Trump administration looked more like "The Godfather" - without the skill. The national security adviser and HHS secretary were caught in illicit or unethical activities and were out. Investigations were launched of the heads of the EPA and Interior Department, and they were out the next year.

The Biden team is more honest, also more competent.

The cabinet is full of men and women with successful political careers, including three former governors, two ex-mayors, and three former members of Congress. They've faced millions of voters.

This White House staff too is better than the motley Trump crew. As often is the case, however, they - more than the cabinet - dominate the administration.

That's a mistake politically.

It'd be better to elevate the likes of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, once governor of Michigan, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, former governor of Rhode Island, as well as Transportation Secretary and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

We're out of endless wars

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was painful, politically costly to Biden, and tragic for many Afghans now suffering under the brutality of the Taliban.

But after spending more than $2 trillion, at a loss of thousands of lives, as multiple American administrations lied about the situation to create and prop up an Afghanistan government, it collapsed the minute America left. There was no good ending. The futility of the Afghan regime was captured in a recent New Yorker piece.

It's good that young American men and women no longer are in combat situations in hopeless places like Afghanistan and Iraq. In the end, they were distractions from the bigger dangers and challenges America faces around the world.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

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