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In 2008, the word was change (and bailout)

/ Source: The Associated Press

All year long that word was everywhere. It was something we could believe in. It was something that mattered. But by the end of 2008 it was not, most definitely, richly jingling in our pockets.

The word was "change." It was what we craved, what we feared, what we endured.

After a long, long campaign, America elected its first African-American president. And it was Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois whose father hailed from Kenya, who first pounded the word into a drumbeat that echoed far beyond politics. In any other year, that victory would have stood alone as a chapter in history.

But this was not any other year.

This was a year when many other words were plucked from the dictionary to join vocabularies stretched to the breaking point by a daily drumbeat of surprises.

Some were good: "Phelpsian," the adjective coined to describe swimmer Michael Phelps' feat at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

But most reflected bewilderment and alarm — words like "bailout" and "financial meltdown."

Global stock markets plunged — and then plunged some more. Stately institutions like Lehman Brothers simply disappeared. Retirement funds vanished, erasing the dreams of people who'd hoped to stop working in their golden years or to send their children to college, or to someday buy their own home.

Mortgages were the locomotive pulling a downbound economic train — specifically, unpaid mortgages. Years of easy money had prompted banks to give loans to folks who were credit risks, and in 2008 that trend kindled a meltdown of mammoth proportions — a worldwide meltdown caused by the intricate, and baffling, selling and reselling of mortgage debt.

The end result for the homeowner was foreclosure, and Americans suffered greatly.

By the end of the third quarter, one in 10 mortgage holders was in foreclosure or delinquent in payments — a 76 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The worldwide recession had at least one salutary effect — the price of oil plummeted, as economic activity ground to a halt. The cost of filling up at the gas station at year's end was just half of what it was six months before.

You had to wonder: Six months hence, would there be any new American cars to gas up?

The government got into the bailout business in the fall, when the cascading failures of the financial industry put the global economy at risk. Congress approved the Troubled Asset Recovery Program — TARP, a new acronym — and said Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson could invest as much as $700 billion in bailouts to keep the wheels on the economy.

A lot went to banks — some healthy, some not. But then Detroit's automaker CEOs — Rick Wagoner of General Motors, Robert Nardelli of Chrysler and Alan Mulally of Ford — came to Washington, hats in hand. They said they were teetering on the edge of disaster.

But their mode of transportation enraged politicians.

"There's a delicious irony that there are private luxury jets landing in Washington with people who have tin cups in their hand," groused Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat.

Later, to show their contrition, the executives drove to Washington in hybrid cars, bringing with them a wish list for as much as $34 billion.

The Senate, at least, was unmoved. And the automakers' fate rested with the lame duck Bush administration, which said it was amenable to helping out to keep the companies going — at least until January, when the companies' survival would be just another of Obama's problems.

Those problems piled up after Election Day. America cut 533,000 jobs in November alone — the biggest loss in 34 years — shooting the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent. And, oh by the way, Americans were told, we've actually been in a recession since December 2007.

Where's the bottom? people asked. We're not there yet, replied Obama. And it's going to get worse before it gets better, he added.

He knows about weathering the highs and lows of long journeys. His bid for the White House lasted for more than a year, and for a good chunk of that time, it seemed more likely that the country would elect its first female president than its first African-American male.

Hillary Rodham Clinton led in early polls and declared Obama couldn't win, then watched as he did just that.

Republican Sen. John McCain made "Joe the Plumber" America's generic handyman, and chose as his running mate an unheard-of governor from Alaska who bore an uncanny resemblance to "Saturday Night Live" alum Tina Fey.

Sarah Palin infused the pop-language lexicon with a few words of her own — "Drill, baby, drill" and "lipstick," applied to pit bulls and soccer moms.

But while she was an immediate superstar to some conservatives, she also became known for the $150,000 in finery secured for her by the Republican party. And for her assertion that her foreign relations experience was bolstered by the fact Russia could be seen from her state.

After the election, Obama changed his working relationship with former foes. Clinton became his choice for secretary of state. He picked another opponent, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, as secretary of commerce.

His policy choices as president are exponentially harder.

There's the economy, of course. Obama has proposed the biggest public works construction program since the interstate highway system was introduced 50 years ago.

And then there is the very dangerous world Obama inherits. In Iraq and Afghanistan, war raged on through 2008 — increasingly in Afghanistan, which saw an ugly increase in al-Qaida attacks, and less violently in Iraq, where "surge" was the word.

In Zimbabwe, where dictator Robert Mugabe continues to wage war on his own people, the word "inflation" lost all meaning as it reached 231 million percent and a cholera epidemic threatened villages and cities alike. Off the coast of Somalia, an old word — "piracy" — took new and unsettling meaning. In Mumbai, a team of terrorists killed 171 people over three days.

In Iran and North Korea, hostile regimes and nuclear capabilities remained a scary combination.

It all might seem impossible, and yet, Obama did not seem at all daunted when he spoke to thousands at Chicago's Grant Park, on the night of his victory.

"This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope.

"And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can."

And so that is one last word that echoed throughout the year — a word that hasn't lost resonance, though it has been uttered many times. It is something people carry into 2009, and the reason they voted for change. It is something harbored in hearts around the world.