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2010: In with bang, out with whimper

Earthquake, elections shook things up

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2010

The year 2010 began with the earthquake heard round the world and ended with a political shake-up in Washington.

Millions responded to a shattering Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 230,000 people, devastating an already beleaguered nation but touching hearts around the globe.

Celebrities rose to the occasion leading a Hurricane Katrina-inspired telethon with some, such as actor-activist Sean Penn, parachuting directly into the Caribbean nation to shine a light on the dire medical and fractious political circumstances, which remained there at year's end.

At home, the U.S. economy continued in lingering recession as states such as California and Ohio, among many others, struggled with massive deficits and economic crises, with flat housing markets a perpetual weight around the nation's fiscal neck. Still, with a post-bailout General Motors successfully putting up its stock for sale and some vigorous holiday spending, economic experts saw a small glimmer of hope as the tough year drew to a close.

"The economy has not seen fabulous growth, but compared to the two previous years, it's been great," said Michigan economist Charles Ballard of the year. "You look at the data on consumer confidence, consumer spending and some other economic indicators, and it's a mosaic — not all the pieces are good. But I do get a sense of finally getting a little momentum forward."

In Iraq, the U.S. military's combat role ended as the war-torn nation made plans for its future amid a divided political landscape. In Afghanistan, the war against the Taliban continued with some U.S. gains and a troop surge supported by President Obama, but political corruption continued after nearly 10 years of fighting.

The unending war efforts left more Americans than ever questioning whether the U.S. toll in blood and treasure, which began in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was worth the mounting costs as domestic financial woes, including a staggering deficit, continued at home.

With the new and growing "tea party" gaining newfound credibility, Congress remained divided over a $1 trillion heath care overhaul bill, lauded by the current administration, but one that fueled massive Republican gains in the November midterm elections.

Democrats began taking hits, political and symbolic, in January when Republican Scott Brown shocked Democrat Martha Coakley to win a special Senate election in deeply blue Massachusetts.

Mr. Brown's victory not only smashed the Democrats filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate, the party suffered further embarrassment by ceding the seat occupied for almost 47 years by now-deceased Democratic legend Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The contest also served as prelude to the Republican Party's landslide victories in the November congressional elections.

As 2010 wore on, a disgruntled electorate continued to sour on the Obama administration, as the president's approval ratings dropped steadily.

Capitol Hill, meanwhile, grappled with what to do with the slumping economy and a near double-digit unemployment rate.

In July, Congress passed the most expansive regulatory overhaul of Wall Street since the Great Depression. The Democrat-crafted legislation, designed to rein in unregulated financial markets while covering the U.S. financial landscape with new regulations, was assailed by Republicans who worried it would be a bureaucratic burden on small businesses.

Amid growing Republican pressure, the president in December backed down from his long-standing promise to let Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy expire, reluctantly agreeing on a two-year extension on tax cuts for all income levels.

The president ended 2010 with victories less tainted, from a liberal point of view. He persuaded Congress to repeal the military's ban on open homosexuality and the "don't ask, don't tell" enforcement policy. The Senate also ratified an arms-control treaty with Russia that Mr. Obama had made the centerpiece of his disarmament agenda with Russia.

Still, with a Republican-led House taking office next year and court battles continuing, the health care law likely will spur vigorous debate in 2011 as well.

Away from Washington, a spate of weather disasters beset countries abroad, with massive floods in Pakistan submerging about one-fifth of the country and affecting 20 million residents, while an Icelandic volcano's eruption savaged European jet travel as a smoke-and-ash cloud billowed into the atmosphere.

The world's attention turned to the Gulf of Mexico after an April 20 explosion on a BP oil rig sent at least 170 millions of gallons of black crude spewing into the region's turquoise waters.

As environmentalists and others crusaded against corporate greed and the roiling environmental disaster — putting the overwhelmed Mr. Obama under siege as the leak could not immediately be stemmed — the oil company promised a full cleanup and a $20 billion fund to help affected communities, including devastated fishing and tourism industries.

The world joined in relief and a collective high point when 33 Chilean miners, trapped underground for 69 days after an Aug. 5 explosion, made their way to the surface in a televised rescue effort.

The group of hard-working laborers earned celebrity status for their survival skills — one finished the New York Marathon — and brought hope in a down year with the miracle of their story of toughness against long odds.

On the entertainment front, a wardrobe from hell, replete with a raw-meat dress, brought post-Madonna shock value to pop star Lady Gaga, whose fashion and performance theatrics drew fascination and disdain from fans and music critics.

Lady Gaga, along with Rihanna, Jay Z, Taylor Swift and a reborn Eminem, led music lists of the "best of the year" as artists struggled to maintain profits in an increasingly disposable, music-downloading nation.

"Lady Gaga remains the social provocateur," observed music critic and artist development consultant Holly Gleason. "Her songs, like it or not, are about mores, social obsessions and without name-checking, the Kardashian invasion of fame. With her, she's actually preaching compassionate, inclusive, all freaks welcome reality — no toy is too broken for her world. Tragically, her clothes may eclipse her music."

Ms. Gleason noted an all-flash, no passion, cash-it-in-for-fame music environment and a likely reality-TV backlash — "Steven Tyler, on 'American Idol'? Seriously?" — that sent music fans toward a weird trend, "milking the past."

"Ultimately, two of the biggest event records this year were excavating the vault — [the Rolling Stones'] 'Exile on Main Street' and [Bruce Springsteen's] 'Darkness on the Edge of Town,'" she said of the nation's retro fervor. "For people who wanted to remember what they were at their brightest, most essentially rebellious youth, they could check into 40 and 35 years ago and try to access what probably really wasn't. Ironically, that music is still more compelling than 90 percent of the music being made right now."

Online giant Yahoo! reported top-10 Internet searches for 2010 as: BP oil spill, World Cup, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, iPhone, Megan Fox, Justin Bieber, "American Idol" and Britney Spears.

Leading Yahoo's top online searched questions: How to tie a tie, How to lose weight, How to kiss and How to write a resume.

On the information-security front, the ongoing WikiLeaks controversy, with its James Bond villain-inspired techno-leader Julian Assange, continued to divide free-speech advocates and those who called his national-security exposes cyberterrorism.

One media specialist said he understands why WikiLeaks fascinates the world, but worries that people who read it get a blast of information with no context. He called that aspect of it troubling.

"It's like journalists are being removed from the equation," said William McKeen, an author and chairman of the journalism program at Boston University.

"People are getting raw information with no interpretation or analysis or even the sense of judgment attached to it. Journalists have always been the gateway. Because journalism is public service, they serve that function of not withholding information, but also knowing how to use information they get responsibly," Mr. McKeen said.

"With WikiLeaks, we have this tsunami of information and getting it is attractive, the novelty of the exposure. But I think the raw feed of it is not the way to go. It sort of marginalizes the whole concept of journalism and the ethical interpretation and presentation of important information."

Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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