As Old Man Time shuffles off stage right and the New Year Baby comes from the left, it’s important to recognize just how dramatically the country and the world has changed over the course of 2012. With that in mind, here are the 10 most historic moments of the last year, both in the U.S. and in the world at large.
1) President Obama wins reelection.
As important as it was that President Obama was the first African American to win the presidency , his reelection in the face of considerable economic headwinds and a controversial record was even more important. Combine that with the fact that his reelection guaranteed that the federal government would execute health care reform and the Volcker Rule, and you suddenly have a consequential narrative. Far from an aloof amateur who was in over his head as a result of the recession and who badly manhandled relations with Congress, you now have a visionary leader who enacted revolutionary legislation and regulations that will have an impact on the country for years to come. Obama has pushed the Democratic Party in a direction that will put it in a better position to deal with future challenges. That’s big.
2) Mitt Romney and the GOP lose 2012 election.
With Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama as well as the failure by the GOP to win back the Senate despite having to contest significantly fewer seats than the Democrats, the coalition crafted by President Reagan is near its end. By limiting itself to predominantly older, white, protestant males, the party has put itself on the wrong side of demographic trends that will make it harder to secure power on the national level as time goes by. This problem is broadly recognized, but efforts to change direction and attract new groups are under constant threat by a rancorous activist base and right-wing media sphere. Until this change is enacted, the country will face one of the most contentious internal ideological debates it has seen since the Democratic Party reinvented itself in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
3) Gay rights successes.
Before this year, gay rights advocates had little success fighting for their causes around the country despite increasing support for their positions in the polls. Then all of a sudden they win big in four states, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington, and throw the political viability of the religious right in question. On top of that, President Obama and Vice President Biden came out in favor of gay marriage and within several months, it became the dominant position within the Democratic Party. Except in the reddest states, there aren’t any Democratic politicians anymore who can survive a primary without supporting gay marriage. While there is still much work left to be done, change will be much faster after this.
4) Mass shootings in Aurora, CO...
Although there have been mass shootings before, few of them had occurred in such a public place as a movie theater, or had killed and wounded so many. While the event itself was a tragedy, the response proved to be even worse. Unlike past shootings that rocked the country, nearly all political, media, and opinion leaders confessed almost immediately that the status quo wouldn’t change, that nothing could be done to end such wanton violence in our society. People grew increasingly sick of the situation.
5) …and Newton, CT
And then they got angry, and the status quo was shaken. Barely two weeks before Christmas, a gunman stormed a sleepy town’s elementary school and with his assault rifle murdered 20 first-graders, six teachers, and his mother before killing himself. The whole country was horrified and, primed by the Aurora shooting, people refused to tolerate the intolerable anymore. Having responded to such tragedies three times before, the President declared that enough was enough:
"This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?.... I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change."
The lobbyists and gun industry driven into a corner, political and media leaders changed their minds. The NRA was silent for days before coming out with a desperate, ridiculous solution to the problem – putting more guns in school – that even has Republicans holding them at arm’s length. Meanwhile retailers were pulling assault weapons off the shelves and investment banks selling off stakes in gun manufacturers. Political and media figures with a history of supporting gun ownership, like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, or former congressmen and TV host Joe Scarborough, decided that they simply couldn’t hold onto their old ideas. One can only hope that the momentum keeps up and that the White House and Congress can push through gun control legislation after current budget negotiations end.
6) Hurricane Sandy hits the east coast of the United States.
Most people are aware that hurricanes are rather large storms. Few would’ve expected one big enough to hit the entire Eastern seaboard, 24 states in total, doing over $50 billion in damages and killing 131 people. Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, over 13,000 flights were canceled, millions without power, and many left without homes during the onset of winter. Only Hurricane Katrina was worse in terms of cost and lives, and that wiped New Orleans off the map. So big was its impact that it actually increased belief in global warming amongst the 1/3 of Americans who don’t trust scientists, from 47% in 2009 to 61%. As one pollster commented, “They don't believe what the scientists say, they believe what the thermometers say… Events are helping these people see what scientists thought they had been seeing all along." With a growing consensus in America that something must be done, the public will increasingly push their politicians to act and resolve the problem.
7) Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Healthcare Act.
Passed with only the upmost difficulty in 2009, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act long looked like it would be the albatross that would sink Democrats in 2012 like it did in 2010. The argument made in front of the Supreme Court over the first few days didn’t raise anyone’s hopes either, and liberals were in despair. Then, out of nowhere, Chief Justice John Roberts changed his position on the legislation, arguing that Congress has the power to penalize those who don’t buy insurance under its taxing authority, if not under the Interstate Commerce Clause as initially arguing, making it constitutional on a 5-4 ruling. By securing that decision and winning his reelection and preventing a Republican administration from undermining the law, President Obama advanced the work of generations to finally take a first step towards providing insurance for everyone while decreasing long term healthcare costs.
8) The Second Dust Bowl.
While this problem drew far less dramatic media coverage than Hurricane Sandy, the drought that has afflicted over half the country this year was the worst in 50 years, causing the topsoil in many rural areas to degrade tremendously. Even drought resistant plants were unable to cope with the heat and water scarcity. Farmers will be forced to take drastic measures next year to cope with these extreme circumstances and consumers will have to pay higher prices for food, something that will afflict foreign countries much worse than America. Significantly, despite all these problems, Congress was still unable to pass a farm bill to provide relief, signaling that the migration of people from rural areas to cities may finally be pushing the nation’s spending priorities towards urban interests. The difficult lot of farmers seems like it will only get worse before it gets better.
9) Fall of General David Petraeus.
Another event that came from left field was the sudden downfall of CIA Director and former U.S. general David Petraeus over, of all things, a sex scandal. One of the army’s brightest and most PR savvy leaders, he rocketed to fame by his last ditch effort to successfully prevent the violence in Iraq from escalating into an ethnic civil war, creating an environment stable enough for the U.S. to safely withdraw. Although he failed to do the same in Afghanistan, his star remained bright and many tried to persuade him into a presidential run that now looks increasingly foolish. On the plus side, his disgrace finally prompted the Pentagon to undertake a long overdue ethics review of senior military leaders. However, it also completes the slow decline of counter-insurgency (COIN) supporters in the national security sphere, following Gen. McChrystal’s firing and the departure of former Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl from D.C.’s think tank community. While people will debate for years the merits and costs of the COIN paradigm, it is a shame that more disastrous ones like neoconservatism never seem to die.
10) Attack on U.S. Embassy in Libya.
While there had always been concern that Al-Qaeda might attack the U.S. on the anniversary of 9/11, few expected an assault in Libya, the one Arab Spring country where the U.S. intervened militarily to overthrow its dictator. With the death of our ambassador and three other employees, the attack has become one of the Obama administration’s biggest headaches and has illuminated problems regarding the lack of funding, internal coordination, and prioritization of concerns within the State Department. Four staffers have resigned as a result and Susan Rice, the ambassador to the U.N., was denied the chance to become the next Secretary of State. One can only hope that this damage will improve the debate over how our country invests in its diplomatic corp.
2012 has consequently been a significant year and will have a big impact on country and world affairs for years to come. One can only hope that 2013 will quell the troubles that have arisen and advance the positive developments that have taken shape.