View from Australia: 11 stories that mattered in 2011

By Jonathan Bradley

January 3: The 112th Congress convenes, with a Republican majority in the House

Elections have consquences, and 2011 was the year America got to road test the Congress it voted for in the 2010 midterm elections. The Republican wave resulted in Ohio Congressman John Boehner inducted as House Speaker, and Democrats reduced to a severely diminished majority of 53 in the Senate, down from 59 in the previous Congress. The new Tea Party-heavy Republican caucus was quick to act on the mandate they believed their 63 new House seats gave them, quixotically voting to repeal the health care reforms Democrats passed in 2010 and showing their proclaimed fealty to the Constitution by having parts of the document read aloud on the House floor. Divided government resulted in gridlock as the year went on, however, with the heavily conservative House showing itself to be disinterested in making concessions to the Democratic controlled Senate and presidency. The government came close to shut down in April and even closer to default in August, and this Congress ended the year as one of the least productive and most unpopular of all time; its approval rating in December was just 11 per cent, with an average of 17 per cent over the full year. Little major legislation was passed, though Republicans did succeed in cutting entitlement programs and continuing all of the Bush tax cuts.

January 8: Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others are shot in Tucson, Arizona

The year was only a week old when Americans were shocked by an assassination attempt on one of their elected officials. Congresswoman Giffords was shot by Jared Lee Loughner at a "Congress on Your Corner" event, and though she survived, six others died in the shooting. Loughner was charged, but found to be incompetent to stand trial.

In the immediate aftermath, both the left and right tried to portray Loughner as a crazed partisan of the other side, but the trail of paranoid rantings he left on the Internet was too incoherent to suggest he adhered to any traditional political ideology. Many commenters were convinced the shooting was the result of an overly aggressive political climate, and called for the national rhetoric to be toned down. This plea had short-lived effects, but the shooting had two more enduring consequences: Firstly, while Loughner was not the Tea Party acolyte many liberals thought him to be, his attempted murder of a government representative demonstrated that armed insurrection as a means of protest was ugly, not inspiring. The Tea Party has largely dropped appeals to violent uprising as a rhetorical device. And secondly, while Sarah Palin did not deserve the approbation she received after the shooting, particularly in relation to a graphic she produced with crosshairs placed over Democratic members Republicans thought they could defeat electorally, many Americans were disgusted by the self-serving video she released to defender herself. Her invocation of "blood libel" further diminished her already eroding support base, and Palin went from a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination to an afterthought. 

February 17: Wisconsin legislators flee the state to prevent Scott Walker's labour reforms

Republican success in the 2010 midterms was not confined to the federal government. The GOP went into 2011 newly in charge of a number of state legislatures, and they were eager to use their power. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker passed the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which would have reduced public employee pensions and limited state workers' ability to negotiate conditions through collective bargaining. Unions agreed to the cuts but were outraged by the attack on labour rights. Rather than allow the bill to pass, Democratic state senators fled the state, denying the Senate the quorum it needed to vote, while protesters opposed to Governor Walker's bill filled the state capitol in Madison. On March 9, Republican legislators passed a version of the bill that did not require a quorum, and the Democrats returned to the state. The story didn't end there though: Activists on both sides recalled six Republican senators and three Democrats. The elections held in July resulted in two Republicans losing their seats — a sign of the public's disapproval of Walker's reforms, but not sufficient to change the balance of power in the state capitol. Governor Walker himself will face a recall election next year. 

March 19: A multilateral US-backed coalition removes Muammar Qadafi from power in Libya

In Egypt and Tunisia, the popular revolts of the Arab Spring were domestic affairs, but when the Libyan dictator Muammar Qadafi threatened to massacre rebels in the town of Benghazi, the United Nations and NATO declared a no-fly zone over the country. Enforced by a multilateral coalition, the military action consisted of airstrikes against regime targets, with much of the initial firepower provided by France and the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, the war quickly became identified with the United States, causing much consternation among the American public. Though no US ground troops were involved, Libya became the third simultaenous theatre in which American troops were involved, and a war weary citizenry responded warily to their military's involvement. President Barack Obama failed to get authority from Congress for the action and violated the 60 day limit to armed action provided for by the War Powers Resolution, earning him criticism from both the left and right. Nonetheless, the action was successful, and Qadafi was captured and killed by rebel forces on October 20.   

April 11: Mitt Romney announces an exploratory committee for a presidential run

Pundits have made much of the unpredictability of this year's Republican presidential race, but in some ways, it's been a straightforward affair. Since the day Mitt Romney announced that he would contend for the nomination, he's steadily fostered a sense of inevitability around his candidacy. Serious rivals like Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels failed to formally declare their interest in nominating, while erratic sideshows like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Donald Trump had brief polling spikes, accompanied by no end of meda hype, before the Republican electorate grew tired of their antics and moved on to some other distraction. Of Romney's most credible rivals, the ones who did announce their candidacy proved disappointing: Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty failed to interest voters, while Rick Perry revealed himself to be gaffe-prone and unprepared, and Jon Huntsman was too ideologically moderate to excite primary voters. While Romney's success in the primary elections next year is hardly assured, he's easily the most likely candidate to win. In spite of his insincerity, impersonable nature, and historical support for policies that are anathema to contemporary Republicans, someone has to win the party's nomination. From the moment Romney announced his intentions, there have been few occasions in which one of his rivals looked likely to provide him with much of a challenge.

May 2: Navy SEALs kill Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, Pakistan

In the early morning of May 2, SEAL Team Six slipped unnoticed over the border of Pakistan and launched an assault by helicopter on the compound of the man who masterminded the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The result of a search that had lasted close to a decade and an operation that had been rehearsed for months, the attack on the al Qaeda leader's fortress resulted in the deaths of three other men and a woman, as well as bin Laden himself. The terrorist was shot twice, and his body removed, photographed, identified, and buried at sea. Rumours of the killing leaked on to social media networks that evening, and President Obama confirmed the news with a televised address at 11:35 p.m. Obama's announcement that "the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden" was brief and emotionally muted, but the American people responded with unbridled enthusiasm. The crowd at a Philadelphia Phillies game erupted in joyous chanting, and residents of New York and Washington, D.C., the two cities that al Qaeda had attacked in 2001, filled the streets in impromptu celebration.

August 2: The US doesn't default on its own debt

Unlike most countries, the United States has a stautory limit to the amount of debt its government can issue. The government must borrow to fund itself, because it has run a budget deficit since 2002, mostly due to war expenditures, unfunded tax cuts, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the 2009 fiscal stimulus designed to get the country out of recession after the financial crisis. The size of the deficit is a problem, but because US debt is considered to be an extremely safe investment, it's currently in high demand, meaning the interest rates the government pays on its debt is extremely low. As such, the deficit is manageable in the short term, and when the Treasury began to brush up against the debt ceiling this year, raising the statutory limit should have been a straightforward matter. Congress has raised the debt limit 74 times since March 1962, and doing so has usually been an uncontroversial formality permitting the country to continue operating.

In the summer of 2011, however, Congressional Republicans insisted on holding the nation's credit hostage, threatening to send the treasury into default unless Democrats agreed to substantial cuts in spending. Democrats agreed to pursue debt reduction strategies, but insisted they be done through a balance of spending cuts and tax increases, something Republicans would not accept. Negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders ground on, and as the end of July neared, the unthinkable — a default on US treasuries — began to look possible. At the last moment, however, Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement that would permit the debt ceiling to be lifted and would require a joint committee to work on future deficit reduction plans. Disaster was averted, and the US continued to service its debt. It didn't escape unscathed, however; ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded its rating of US debt from AAA to AA+, a self-inflicted and entirely unnecessary embarrassment Republicans in Congress inflicted on the nation.

September 17: Activists protest inequality in Zuccotti Park, New York

Spearheaded in part by Canadian anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters and with no coherent message to its name, the Occupy Wall Street protests seemed doomed to failure: one more manifestation of lefty nostalgia for the 1960s. But the activists in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park were determined and their inchoate frustration struck a chord with a nation sick of corporate malfeasance and economic misery. Protesters first began attracting national attention when New York police assaulted apparently peaceful women with pepper spray. The Occupy banner was quickly customised for cities across the United States and the world, and protesters drew unexpectedly large amounts of support from the public. Politicians fixed on the movement's message of inequality and for the first time in 2011, Washington DC began to seriously talk about creating jobs instead of worrying about the deficit. The protesters were eventually evicted from Zuccotti Park — city officials claimed they presented a public health risk — but the movement was far more successful than could have been imagined in its early days. 

September 20: Don't Ask Don't Tell ends

Ending discrimination against gays in the armed services was one of the final acts of the 111th Congress, and after a requisite study ensuring no harm would come from permitting homosexuals to openly serve alongside heterosexuals, and a 60 day waiting period, the Clinton-era policy officially came to an end. Some conservative voices and members of the military warned against the change, but ultimately, Don't Ask Don't Tell's demise was anticlimactic. The only thing that happened was that all Americans were permitted to serve their country without having to hide who they are.

November 14: The Supreme Court agrees to hear challenges to the Affordable Care Act

When Democrats passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March 2010, they felt as if a long war had come to an end. Hostilities didn't cease when President Obama signed the bill into law, however. Rather, they just relocated to a new battleground.

Opponents of the bill challenged it in court almost immediately, and though legal observers initially thought that the constitutional underpinning of the reform was sound, some federal court judges took a different view. At issue was whether Congress had the power to compel Americans to purchase a product — here, health care insurance — and, if it did not, whether that would invalidate the entire law or simply the section known as the individual mandate. As various courts considered the matter, rulings tended toward the partisan, but not universally so. Most Republican-appointed judges struck the law down, while Democratic appointees upheld it, but there were some exceptions.

Eager to have the law's legal status settled before the next election, the Obama Administration asked the Supreme Court to consider the bill's constitutionality. Last month, it agreed, and scheduled a lengthy five hours of oral arguments for March 2012. Regardless of how the court decides, the case will be a contentious one in an election year, and it will likely split in a 5-4 vote, with Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan appointee, breaking the tie. Upholding the decision would infuriate Republicans, but would be consistent with the last 80 years of jurisprudence. It's not certain, however, how eager the court is to stick with that precedent. A majority of the judges might feel its time to stamp a more limited interpretation of federal power on the nation.

December 18: The war in Iraq ends

Under the cover of darkness and without even informing the Iraqi troops they'd been training, American forces crept out of Iraq, one week before Christmas. Ending the war had been a campaign promise of President Obama's, and though it didn't happen as quickly as many Americans hoped, in 2011, he made good on that guarantee. The war had been expensive and bloody, and though it had succeeded in creating a shaky democracy in the Middle East, the cost in obtaining that result was high:  Trillions of dollars and 4484 dead US soldiers. It was an ignoble but necessary end to a foreign policy disaster, but the US will start 2012 engaged in one fewer war than before. 

30 December 2011