From left, right, and center, the obits for both the first decade of the century and for that decade’s last year were almost uniformly bleak. But that’s only half right. The decade was very dark indeed, but it ended with a dawn of change that will be brighter in history than it appears in the hangover shadows of today.

No one, except for the depleted band of Bush loyalists who barely dare to speak his name, now tries to apologize for the Bushwhacked decade. That era has earned the biblical epitaph “the years the locusts have eaten.” We suffered a stolen presidency, the horror of 9/11 compounded by a war rooted in deceit and a reckless economics of greed that brought the country and the world to the brink of a second Great Depression. Along the way, the presidency, which should be an exemplar of moral leadership, trafficked in disdain for the environment, violations of constitutional rights and the exploitation of intolerance and fear. For America, it was a low, mean, debilitating decade.

But history doesn’t unfold in neatly denominated spans, and 2009 was very different from what came before. Yes, it was a grim passage when millions had to pay the cost—in lost jobs, lost homes, and lower living standards —for the past derelictions of those who could not run government because they hate government. But like 1933, when the toll was even more painful, history will look back on the past year as a turning point—not just for the economy but for the character of our country.

In the first month, we took a great step toward the fulfillment of our nation’s ideals—a step many thought impossible until it actually happened—with the inauguration of the first African-American president. It was redemption as well as fulfillment; Barack Obama could have been legally owned by his first 16 predecessors. His victory was a breakthrough most powerfully because his color was not a barrier to electing the president that a majority regarded as the best candidate.

The next turning point was the stimulus package—or as the administration futilely sought to rebrand it, the economic recovery package—which in increasingly evident fact has triggered a recovery. Without decisive, deficit-expanding federal intervention, the battered economy almost certainly would have plunged off the brink. The stimulus was criticized, for different reasons, by liberals as well as conservatives. The bill was passed without a single vote from the cowering, culpable Republicans in the House.

Liberals thought— think—that the stimulus was not enough, that we need more fiscal and monetary pump-priming. They’re likely to have their way on the substance but not the politics. For the short and medium term, rhetoric will diverge from reality as the government continues to talk deficit reduction while pushing the fiscal pedal. The president, whose first priority is recovery, won’t educate the public by proclaiming the sometime virtues of deficits and easy money. The Republicans, meantime, will again do all they can to play on popular misconceptions about balanced budgets because they regard a downturn as their easiest path up the electoral mountain. Pointing to the “exhaustion of Reaganomics,” the conservative columnist Ross Douthat urges a new and positive “right-of-center agenda.” He can argue on; the GOP will keep drinking tea.

Last year will also rank as the once-in-a-century moment when a president finally moved national health reform from cause to legislative commitment. For the first time ever, the House and the Senate each voted on a bill. They still have to compromise on disagreements and details, but they will. More than 30 million Americans who are without coverage will receive it—and those who already have it will be given new choices and fundamental protections. The measure will be the greatest act of social justice since Social Security and the civil rights revolution.

The Republicans have announced that they will run in 2010 with a promise to repeal it. Go ahead—make my midterm.

Tell Americans that you’ll role back the patient’s bill of rights and end the ban on preexisting conditions—provisions that take effect this year. Progress won’t be reversed here—any more than it was when the GOP warned in 1936 that Social Security meant regimentation for our workers and dog tags for every American. They spoke of repeal then, too—and their nominee carried two states.

None of this is to say that 2009 was easy. A perilous decision, the long-shot gamble in Afghanistan, may not work out. There were a few missteps as well, notably in the aftermath of the attempt to bring down flight 253 on Christmas Day. (Maybe we should have a rule: No one named Janet in the Cabinet.) But at least Obama righted the public response and, more importantly, set in motion a review of a faulty intelligence system. He also had the class, and wisdom, not to blame the Bush administration.

In 2010, Obama will move forward on climate change, financial reform, and immigration. After restoring America’s image in the world last year, he will advance concrete achievements like a new arms-control agreement with Russia and international action to stop nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea. Barack Obama probably doesn’t have much time to indulge that habitual quest for the grail of the presidential legacy. But he has already made history—and although the big picture may be obscured by partisan static and passing events, America in 2009 got back on course to becoming a fairer, stronger, more prosperous country.

It was a rotten decade. It was a remarkable year.