It will be the best of times. Or, perhaps, it will be the worst. Fidgety days are these, and, looking ahead to 2009, it's still hard to know quite what to make of them. Sure, things are plenty bad out there. But dare you doubt that they could get worse?
The waning months of 2008 saw several august Wall Street institutions collapse like so many termite-ridden houses. Billions and billions vanished from the economy as the government poured billions and billions more back into it: the futile bailing-out of a sinking dinghy. The heads of the Big Three automakers emerged from their three big private jets to beg halfwit politicians on Capitol Hill for suitcases of no-strings-attached cash, as right-wingers simultaneously seized a golden chance to stick it to the unions. Homes from Bakersfield to Fort Myers went into foreclosure, their occupants' belongings left strewn on the lawn. Britney Spears mounted a comeback.
It started with 9/11, kept going with Katrina, and now the feeling is pervasive: nothing is safe. Every day offers more potential for fear and loathing.
But then again, who knows? Maybe everything will wind up hunky-dory! After all, isn't Barack Obama — "The One," "The Savior," "The Liberal Messiah" — due to be installed in the Oval Office in a mere three weeks? Isn't it so tempting to surrender to the idea that finally having a smart grown-up retake the helm of this once-proud nation will just somehow fix everything? Nowhere to go but up, right?
So, which is it? "Walkin' on Sunshine" or "Everybody Hurts"? Shall we face the coming year with heads held high and hearts aflutter, or with fingernails gnawed to the quick and bellies wracked with dread? Here we take a look at the full spectrum of "Best Case" and "Worst Case" scenarios for what we'll all face together in 2009.
THE BIG PICTURE
BEST CASE Barack Obama ascends to the Oval Office in January serenaded by the tweeting of sweet-voiced songbirds. Clad in raiment of purest white, his necktie the cerulean blue of the deepest ocean, he steps to the inaugural podium for a stirring peroration. The light of truth and righteousness beams down effulgently upon him as, Midas-like, he touches the national coffers with his slender finger, instantly replenishing them with tumbling piles of gleaming gold. In the audience, our new BFFs Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez, and Kim Jong-il — lapels bedecked in US-flag pins like a TGI Friday's waiter's flair-festooned vest — step toward the rostrum and glowingly present the new president with a goodwill gift: the bronzed head of Osama Bin Laden, mounted upon a congratulatory plaque. Meanwhile, as the tree-mugging Bush administration skulks into history, battered Mother Earth lets out a sigh of leafy relief as smokestacks quit smoking and the streets whir with the happy sound of automobiles powered by rainbows.
WORST CASE War, famine, pestilence, death, frogs, locusts, Jonas Brothers.
BEST CASE Somehow, against all odds, Obama's economic dream team manages to turn this ship around. And how! Capital is suddenly liquefied like carrots in Oprah's juicer, swirling and sluicing through the valves and gears of commerce. Conspicuous consumption is again the law of the land. Hummers hum once more. There's a high-def flat screen in every bathroom from Caribou to Coronado. Kobe-beef hamburgers are washed down with goblets of $900 Bordeaux. At a press conference in June, President Obama announces plans to buy back the billions of dollars of American T-bills owned by China — and then, after that, to buy China.
WORST CASE The Dow plunges into negative numbers, a phenomenon most economists didn't think was actually possible. Former Wall Street titans are reduced to selling heirloom apples on Upper West Side street corners while their trophy wives, spangled in cubic zirconia, watch starving models — like, literally starving — prowl the runway, showing off the season's latest in barrel couture.
BEST CASE No more IEDs. No more RPGs. No more mortar shells. The Iraqi insurgency is reduced to throwing shoes at our valiant troops. Soon, however, realizing the patent (leather?) ridiculousness of it all, they change course once more — and this whole long slog of an occupation dissipates into a big silly pillow fight. Downy feathers float dreamily through the air over Tikrit and Samarra as Sunni, Shia, Special Forces, and Reserves share big bowls of buttery popcorn and all-night sessions of Truth or Dare. In the morning, they all watch cartoons and then everyone goes home.
WORST CASE We realize to our chagrin that the Saddam Hussein we strung from the gallows two years ago was actually one of his many body doubles. At the signing ceremony celebrating the penultimate stage of US forces' withdrawal from the country, the real McCoy emerges from his hidey hole, clutching the cache of WMDs we were all fooled into thinking didn't exist. The whole thing starts all over again.