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The Top 15 Winners and Losers of 2009

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1. Barack Obama: Inaugurated as the first African- American president in U.S. history, he inherited two wars, the Great Recession, a Democratic Congress with a pent-up agenda, a liberal base with a litany of unrealistic demands, and a hostile Republican Party – and managed to keep his head above water and his famous cool. 1. Nobel Prize Committee: With friends like the geniuses in Oslo, Obama needs no enemies. Awarding the Peace Prize to Obama before he'd learned where the White House cafeteria is located (not to mention committed 35,000 more troops to Afghanistan), set him up for failure and ridicule. It was also: a) a gratuitous slap at George W. Bush; b) an insult to those who'd worked their entire lives for peace, including some previous winners; c) a reminder that this prize often goes to the wrong people.
2. Sarah Palin: Love her or loathe her, Sarah Palin had a boffo 2009. Critics scoff at her book, her political opinions, her over-the-top talk of "death panels" and boycotting the Copenhagen climate change summit – while insisting her resignation as governor of Alaska revealed her to be an unserious person. Really? Sarah Palin's gubernatorial salary was $125,000 a year. Her book advance was a reported $5 million. You do the math: Sarah Palin would have had to serve in Juneau until 2049 to make that kind of money. Instead of leading one of the least populous states in the union, Sarah Palin leads a movement with millions of followers. 2. David Letterman: Due to his own indiscretions, the late-night CBS curmudgeon found himself the target of an apparent blackmail attempt – and the butt of the kind of jokes he directs at politicians and celebrities. He was forced to apologize for a tasteless joke asserting that one of Sarah Palin's daughters – he never said which one – was "knocked up" by New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez. Letterman also said Palin went to Bloomingdale's to update "her slutty flight attendant look," an unfunny line that simultaneously insulted an innocent department store, airline employees, and ... women.
3. Political Journalism: We're talking now about those in the media who write about Sarah Palin. In this era of hyper-competitive digital news sites, where we are all judged by our clicks, "Sarah Palin" is the gift that keeps on giving. She is a veritable "Miss Page Views." Why do you think we've written the name Sarah Palin seven times in two paragraphs? We also had myriad scandals to cover, an epic legislative struggle over health insurance, a new administration, "tea parties" and Republican victories in the New Jersey and Virgina gubernatorial races. 3. Political Journalism: Scooped on the John Edwards soap opera by the National Enquirer, dodging layoffs at every newspaper in the country (many of which have simply shuttered their Washington bureaus), routinely denounced for supposedly being in the tank for Barack Obama and the Democrats, and being alternately ridiculed and imitated by the blogs, 2009 has been a rough year. Famous media critic Harry Reid even felt emboldened to diminish the great David Broder, immortalized in another era by counterculture icon Timothy Crouse as "the high priest" of journalism.
4. Jenny Sanford: First lady of South Carolina – and first in the hearts of millions of American women. She responded to her husband's much publicized infidelity by moving herself and her sons out of the governor's mansion, launching an entrepreneurial website where she could apply her business acumen to selling an array of products, endorsing the gubernatorial bid of another South Carolina woman, and filing for divorce even as her husband was giving yet another blubbering interview about his conflicted heart. "Not only will I survive," she had said when the scandal first broke, "I'll thrive." Apparently, she meant what she said. 4. Mark Sanford: South Carolina's governor and GOP presidential hopeful barely escaped impeachment after disappearing for five days to meet a lady friend in Argentina. Sanford's quickly disproved excuse – "hiking on the Appalachian trail" – entered the language as code for a tryst. His tearful confessional interviews and news conferences were cringe-inducing -- and counter-productive. He pronounced himself "ready to fall back in love" with his wife, even while referring to his Buenos Aires buddy as his "soul mate." In a sobbing interview, Sanford added: "This was a whole lot more than a simple affair, this was a love story. A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day." It was one of the few times all year that the hackneyed expression end of the day was used correctly – for that's what it was for Mark Sanford.
5. China: For signing on to a climate change deal it can hail as showing Chinese responsiveness to a global crisis – while actually evading having to sign an actual treaty with binding commitments and a review of its actual level of carbon emissions.

Related: What Obama, Pelosi, Reid, & the Republicans Should Resolve for 2010
5. Mother Earth: The Copenhagen climate summit was supposed to produce a treaty setting global caps on greenhouse gas emissions in sync with scientific research showing that serious reductions are needed to forestall the consequences of global warming. But political bickering among the 193 nations deep-sixed a pact that would have provided mandatory emissions cuts. Nor were the advocates for a greener globe helped by revelations that the climate change establishment has used methods ranging from stonewalling to employing a statistical "trick" – that's their own word – to hide the fact that they can't document a rise in the planet's temperature.
6. Harry Reid: Having his fanny handed to him by the "public option" opponents, sticking his foot in his mouth even more than usual, and facing what seems to be an uphill battle for re-election in his home state wouldn't seem like a good year for the Democratic senator from Nevada. But in 2009 Reid herded cats with some of the best Senate Majority Leaders of all time – rounding up the 60 votes he needed to pass a sweeping health care package, even if it doesn't contain everything liberals wanted. 6. John Ensign: While he didn't make the spectacle of himself that Mark Sanford did, Nevada's other senator dashed whatever presidential hopes he may have had by getting caught in a love triangle with the wife of his top aide – and then, under pressure from the aggrieved husband, recommended him for several lucrative jobs back home in what looked to all the world like the work of a guilty conscience – and possibly hush money.
7. Facebook and Twitter: Facebook is where Sarah Palin does much of her campaigning. Enough said. And the newer kid on the technological block, Twitter, established itself as a force for good when it was used to cover – and to rally ordinary people into the street – in the aftermath of the stolen Iranian elections. 7. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Iran's president was exposed by his own rantings more than Twitter to be a Bush-bashing, Israel-hating, Jew-baiting, Obama-knocking dictator with a messianic complex and an obsession with obtaining nuclear weapons. But he apparently believes his own hold on power to be so tenuous that when young Neda Soltan was gunned down by government thugs, Ahmadinejad's regime forbade her family from even holding a funeral.
8. Other New Media: Fox News launched in 1996, and continued in 2009 to dominate its cable rivals in the ratings, despite – or maybe partially because of – the ill-conceived War on Fox orchestrated within the Obama White House. Meanwhile, in only its second year in operation, Politico became such a force inside the capital that White House aides were writing snarky memos making fun of it. Not to toot our own horn, but Politics Daily, launched in April 2009, attained 8 million unique visitors in December. And although its business model remains problematic, The New York Times Web site established itself as the gold standard of Old Media doing its thing online. 8. Old Media: The venerable Editor & Publisher, which dates to 1884, and Kirkus Reviews, which began in 1933, were closed down by the Nielsen Co. this month – an indication that for the print media 2009 was worse than either the height of the Great Depression or a three-year economic downturn in the United States often known simply as "The Panic of 1884."

Related: Jobs, Housing, and the Other Top 10 Economic Stories of 2009
9. Ben Bernanke: All year, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board was a human punching bag on Capitol Hill, assailed from the right (Sens. Jim DeMint and Jim Bunning) and the left (Sen. Bernie Sanders) as well as from left field (Rep. Ron Paul) as a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with banking and Wall Street. But Bernanke never forgot his roots in rural Dillon, S.C., and devoted his energies in 2009 to averting another Depression. "I'm not one of those people who look at this as some kind of video game," he said. "I come from Main Street, from a small town that's really depressed. This is all very real to me." Along the way, he made many converts, including the editors of Time magazine, who named him Person of the Year. 9. The President's Economic Team: Lawrence Summers, Timothy F. Geithner, Peter R. Orszag, and Christina D. Roemer all possess stellar credentials as top-notch economic thinkers. But the end results of Obama's economic clique has proven less than the sum of its parts. They haven't worked well as a team, don't communicate publicly very effectively, and seem mystified by the public's loss of confidence in the president over the economy. They may not understand why Bernanke is lionized and they are pilloried, but here's a hint: They acted as though accurately predicting that U.S. unemployment would surpass 10 percent should somehow inoculate the administration from criticism when that unhappy forecast came true.
10. Sonia Sotomayor: The first Hispanic seated on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor conducted herself with dignity during the surreal process humorist Dave Barry terms "the traditional Washington performance of Konfirmation Kabuki, in which the Democrats portray the nominee as basically a cross between Abraham Lincoln and the Virgin Mary, and the Republicans portray her more as Ursula the Sea Witch with a law degree." The nominee, Barry noted, was confirmed – "but only after undergoing the traditional Senate Judiciary Committee hazing ritual, during which she must talk for four straight days without expressing an opinion." 10. Shareholders in Public Corporations: Sonia Sotomayor joins a high court that has recently made it extremely difficult for defrauded investors to recoup money from shady financial institutions or colluding executives. In addition, Bill Lerach, the hard-charging trial attorney who brought American corporations to account with his ubiquitous class action securities lawsuits, spent most of 2009 in prison for his litigous excesses. Bill Lerach may have broken the law, but it turns out that the S.E.C. wasn't enough of a watchdog without him and his fierce law firm.
11. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty: They didn't do anything spectacular in 2009, but they didn't do anything calamitous, either. Didn't go "hiking on the Appalachian trail," betray a friend, cry in public, or quit their job early. They most definitely did not lobby for the early release from prison, say, of a murderous psycho. That in itself was enough to stamp the former Massachusetts governor and the current chief executive of Minnesota as likely frontrunners in the 2012 GOP presidential nominating derby. 11. Mike Huckabee: The former governor's motivations for granting clemency to career criminal Maurice Clemmons may have been pure, but the results were disastrous – four slain police officers outside Seattle, Wash. And it wasn't the only commutation of an Arkansas felon that ended badly. It turns out that Huckabee, originally famous for losing a lot of weight by watching his diet, was handing out clemencies like they were candy. Next stop? Not the 2012 presidential nomination, that's for sure.
12. Michele Bachmann and Haley Barbour: The accountant-turned Minnesota congresswoman used her second term in office to become the thinking person's Sarah Palin. Bachmann is smart, she's attractive, she's got five kids, but she doesn't waste time on matters like "death panels" or Levi Johnston – and doesn't take much jive from hecklers. By nurturing her outsider's persona inside the Capitol, she's become a rising star in the conservative firmament. Haley Barbour was the consummate Washington fixer who went back to Mississippi to become governor. After Hurricane Katrina hit, he was one of the few officials who distinguished himself in that crisis. He's popular at home and a soothing presence to Republican activists who gravitate toward his experience, down-home charm, and Reagan-esque optimism. 12: Joe Wilson and Michael Steele: Shouting "You lie!" to the President of the United States during a speech to a joint session of Congress brought Wilson out of the obscurity of his South Carolina congressional district – and stamped congressional Republicans as rude and intolerant. Wilson's troubles were complicated because Obama hadn't actually lied. Meanwhile, Steele was chosen Republican National Committee chairman to give the GOP a new, inclusive, face. He showed that face in an impressive appearance before the NAACP, but he has also demonstrated an unfortunate knack for the ill-timed gaffe and a penchant for floating his own policy prescriptions, which is not the job of a party chief.
13. Glenn Beck: An odious media figure to liberals and progressives, the boyish-looking Fox News commentator has come out of the shadows to exert influence on conservative and independent-minded Americans while racking up best-selling books and TV ratings. He has millions of loyal fans, many who follow him online, and while he is unlikely to directly sway voters' minds in the 2010 or 2012 elections, he has demonstrated an ability to shape the national debate. 13. Lou Dobbs: Apparently, a key ingredient for Dobbs' strange brew of populism was the presence of George W. Bush in the White House. With Bush gone -- and out of Dobbs' line of fire -- the bombastic commentator's relentless criticisms of immigrants came across to many as toxic, even racist. He lost his CNN show, and now has only his Web site. But there's nothing virtual about Dobbs' ego, and he's already making noises of running for public office. But which political party would make him comfortable? Which one would want him?
14. Hillary Clinton: From a narrow and crushing defeat in the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, she has emerged as knowledgeable and forceful secretary of state and powerful player in Obama's cabinet. From playing a leading role, along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on the administration's internal deliberations over Afghanistan to outlining America's position on human rights in the world, Mrs. Clinton has brought gravitas to the job and emerged almost completely from her husband's long shadow. She hasn't seemed to age much on the job, either, perhaps defying those who said that 2016 wasn't a realistic timeframe for her to contemplate a return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 14. Joe Biden: After a rocky start, the Veep kept his famous miscues to a minimum, but he did not emerge as the power player on foreign policy issues that his devotees had hoped for. His view that the United States should ramp down militarily in Afghanistan did not prevail internally, his public appearances do not garner much attention, and his absence at major events is barely noted. He was not present at the climate change summit meeting in Copenhagen. Perhaps that was for security reasons, but it was Hillary who sat next to Obama during negotiations with the Chinese leadership. "Loser" is too strong a term for Biden's performance in 2009, but it is fair to say that he has become more of a traditional Veep, a post with a vague job description and a long list of insults used to describe it – some of the most memorable coined by men who actually had held the job.
15: Gen. Stanley McChrystal: The top U.S. military man in Afghanistan asked his new commander in chief, a man of antiwar leanings and rhetoric, for a significant escalation of the war effort. As the public and even members of his own party balked, Obama gave McChrystal nearly everything the four-star general had pressed him for, including a major escalation of 35,000 more troops and a new hard-line strategy. McChrystal's prize comes at a price: he and his brave troops now must produce convincing wins to demonstrate that Obama's gamble is paying off. 15. The Afghan People: Whatever the merits of the president's decision, they are now suffering through their second generation of life-shattering violent conflict. More families will send their sons off to serve, with Afghan government forces or the insurgents. More civilians will die, most from insurgent attacks meant to intimidate civilians. But many Afghan women and children will die also in battle crossfire, and as mistaken victims of U.S. air strikes. The renewed U.S. commitment to Afghanistan holds hope for a brighter future for them, but the immediate future looks tough.

Patricia Murphy, Matt Lewis, Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, Jill Lawrence, David Corn, and David Wood contributed to this story.

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