The only thing predictable about the political landscape in 2011 was the size of the stories. It was a year of intense emotions and bitter feuds.
Congress stalemated over and over on routine budgetary matters, creating a crisis environment. Occupy Wall Street launched, camping in parks around the country and facing pepper spray and batons in chaotic street protests that raised serious questions about the militarization of post-9/11 police forces. Anthony Weiner resigned after a sexting scandal. David Wu stepped down, too, and Herman Cain improbably became a presidential primary front-runner before withdrawing in the face of adultery charges. America finally got Osama bin Laden, killing him in a daring raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But Obama’s support continued to decline. And while the year got off to a bad start when Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot point-blank in the head on Jan. 8 at a Tucson Safeway, her courage in the face of injury and astonishing partial recovery provided an inspiring, bittersweet coda to the year when she sat for a television interview in November.
A look back at the year that was:
1. THE RISE OF OCCUPY WALL STREET
From a graphic showing a ballerina poised on a bull with the question “What is Our One Demand?” to President Obama’s remarks on fairness for the middle class this week in Osawatomie, Kan., which cited them, the Occupy Wall Street movement protesters created one of the most significant interventions into the political debate in 2011.
Launched Sept. 17, in less than three months the scruffy multi-issue activists of the Occupy movement who camped out in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan and enclaves around the country have created meme after meme; helped force Bank of America to repeal planned new fees; suffered pepper spray and baton injuries; occupied abandoned buildings and public squares; and even tried to raise a barn on Washington, D.C.’s McPherson Square, before running afoul of building codes.
Mainly, though, the activists have raised awareness. Four years into the economic downtown, with unemployment stubbornly high and wages depressed, the anarchic Occupy protesters have thrown an explosive moral assertion into the center of a conversation about politics and economics that had become dominated by an almost Calvinist faith in the market’s ability to reward the deserving. “We are the 99 percent,” they asserted, raising chants and hand-drawn cardboard posters against the 1 percent who have been the biggest beneficiaries of the last decade’s economic developments. Now, with most of their major camps cleared and winter approaching, the movement will have to find a new way of sustaining itself as the autumn of its discontent comes to a close.
— Garance Franke-Ruta
2. THE DECREASED POPULARITY AND CONTINUED POWER OF THE TEA PARTY
Compared to the previous few years, 2011 involved far fewer “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. The history of the tea party has gone something like this: In 2009, it gathered a base and held massive protests across the country. In 2010, it cemented its power by winning primaries, electing new lawmakers, and shaping the platform of the Republican Party. In 2011, everything simmered down, but the movement maintained huge influence over the GOP.
Congressional Republicans probably wouldn’t have demanded as many spending cuts or engaged in as many high-profile stalemates with President Obama had the Tea Party not pushed them to do so, but, in 2011, some of the initial magic seemed to go missing. A rally held at the Capitol in March by Tea Party Patriots, the nation’s largest tea party membership group, drew a sparse crowd even as budget negotiations approached full tilt, and one Virginia activist told me the movement was stretched thin by too many calls to action and too little energy.
The tea party ends the year with a strong infrastructure of organizations — including Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks, and every conservative group that promotes less spending and lower taxes — but also a drop in support, even in congressional districts represented by Tea Party Caucus lawmakers, as a recent Pew Research Center survey found.
— Chris Good
3. THE FIGHT OVER UNIONS IN WISCONSIN, OHIO, NEW JERSEY, ETC.
Unionized public workers engaged in several high-profile fights with Republicans, as the first half of the year was marked by massive protests in two Midwestern states.
Swept into office by the 2010 midterm elections, Republican legislatures and governors quickly sought to address state budget issues by taking away collective-bargaining rights for unionized public workers — and progressives protested in force. In Ohio, thousands protested a bill to take away bargaining rights for tens of thousands of state workers. After new Republican Gov. John Kasich signed the bill in March, Ohio voters overwhelmingly repealed it in November. In New Jersey, union supporters protested a bill to force state workers to pay more into their health care and pension benefits; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill in June.
But the biggest fight by far came in Wisconsin, where a similar bill sparked a wave of campaigns to recall state lawmakers and where new Republican Gov. Scott Walker became the arch enemy of union-backers nationwide. As Democratic protesters and union supporters occupied the state capitol, Democratic lawmakers fled the state to Illinois, seeking to prevent Wisconsin Republicans from passing the bill. Democrats ultimately fell short of overturning the GOP state Senate majority, but they’re now aiming to recall Walker, collecting signatures at a rapid pace before their Jan. 17, 2012 deadline.
— Chris Good
4. BUDGET STALEMATES
Confidence in Washington may have hit a historic low in 2011, as showdowns over spending twice threatened to shut down operations of the federal government.
In April, as Republicans demanded spending cuts, the government’s temporary-funding legislation ran out — bringing House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama to the negotiating table with the nation bracing for a full-on shutdown of the federal government. The two finally struck a deal on the night of Friday, April 8, and promptly held press conferences to announce they had averted disaster.
Fresh budget impasses developed again in July and August, as congressional Republicans balked at the typically routine task of approving an increase in the national debt limit, demanding massive spending cuts. As Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner forecasted doomsday consequences for passing the Aug. 2 deadline, the debt limit resurrected the big political fight that concluded 2010 — over taxes on the rich — as Obama once again pushed a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction, meaning higher taxes on higher incomes.
The two sides reached a deal — sort of. In creating a congressional “super committee” and promising over $2 trillion in total cuts, the tough decision-making was put off until later. And even that failed: The super committee deadlocked in November, meaning an automatic $1.2 trillion in across-the-board budget cuts will be triggered in 2012 unless lawmakers can find the savings elsewhere.
Congress enters 2012 with no clear agreement on how to handle federal spending, set to replay the same fight in an election year.
— Chris Good
5. THE GOP ’12 MERRY-GO-ROUND
The race for the Republican nomination has been a roller-coaster ride that’s defied prognostication and scrambled expectations. Remember when Tim Pawlenty was thought to be a formidable candidate? Or when Haley Barbour was staffing up to run? When we had to take Donald Trump seriously because he was polling so well as a potential candidate? When a whisper from Sarah Palin was enough to send reporters racing after her pell-mell bus tour?
Through it all, the presumed front-runner, Mitt Romney, has stayed more or less constant as the other candidates cycled through the spotlight. From Michele Bachmann, who won the Iowa straw poll, to Rick Perry, who hit his peak in the polls before he opened his mouth, to Herman Cain, felled by revelations about his sex life, the majority of the GOP electorate that’s not ready to settle on Romney continues to cast about for a satisfactory alternative. (Then there were all the candidates who decided not to run, a list that includes Trump, Barbour, Palin, Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence, John Thune, and Chris Christie.) As the race enters its final sprint to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and Newt Gingrich takes a commanding lead in the polls, the big question remains essentially the same as it was a year ago: Will the Republican Party unify around a nominee — whether it’s Romney or anyone else?
— Molly Ball
6. OBAMA’S STEADY LOSS OF SUPPORT
On Jan. 1, 2011, Americans were about equally divided on their approval of their president — 45 percent approved and 48 percent disapproved of his performance, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. That barely significant gap has widened to nearly 10 points today, with just 43 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving. It has not been a good year for the White House.
It was a year in which nothing seemed to pan out for the president. The economy refused to perk up; Congress dug in its heels. Obama got a brief boost from the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, but the shocking debacle of July’s debt-limit fight soured even many liberals who’d given him the benefit of the doubt. Early policies that the White House hoped would have begun to pay political and economic dividends, like the stimulus and health care reform, have had the opposite effect, becoming rallying cries for the opposition while failing to offer tangible improvements in the near-term. William Daley, who took over as chief of staff in January and was supposed to rebuild relations with both Congress and the business community, hasn’t exactly turned things around.
Obama goes into his reelection campaign year facing an exhausted and demoralized public and a stagnant economy. His best hope seems to be that the incompetence of Congress and the flaws of the Republican presidential contenders make him look like the least-bad option.
— Molly Ball
7. THE END OF BIRTHER MADNESS
After President Obama took office, some of his most conspiracy-minded critics decided that instead of challenging his domestic-policy or foreign-affairs decisions, they’d focus most intensely on his constitutional eligibility to hold office. Thus the infamous question: “Where’s the birth certificate?”
It was always in Hawaii. That’s where Barack Hussein Obama was born, on Aug. 4, 1961, at Kapi’olani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital. Contemporaneous birth notices were published in the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Among a fringe of Americans, however, doubts persisted about whether Obama was really a natural-born citizen or a Kenyan- or Indonesian-born impostor. By the time of the 2010 midterms, the birthers had grown numerous enough that tea party candidates found themselves “having to walk the fine line of humoring … conspiracy-minded supporters without explicitly questioning Obama’s legitimacy.”
And then came Donald Trump. When the businessman, reality TV star, and professional publicity hound said that he might run for president in 2011, even as he claimed to dispatch investigators to Hawaii, “birtherism” peaked — and then ended in short order. On April 27, 2011, Obama released his long-form birth certificate, and most on the right quickly tried to forget the whole episode of collective mania.
— Conor Friedersdorf
8. THE GABRIELLE GIFFORDS SHOOTING
On the morning of Saturday, Jan. 8, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner walked up to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway in Tucson, Ariz., and shot her point blank in the head. His shooting spree left six dead, including Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Roll and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, and more than a dozen wounded.
The massacre in the Grand Canyon State horrified the nation as 2011 opened, seemingly acting as a bloody coda to a divisive and rhetorically hateful political season and one that would by necessity shock America into a period of self-reflection and more-tempered political language. There was some blowback against comments made in the wake of the shooting, such as by Sarah Palin, who issued a defensive and tone-deaf video statement, and Glenn Beck. President Obama gave a big speech. People tried to move away from some of the more martial language that crops up periodically in the political arena. But in the end it was clear that the shooter was responding to his own demons as much as social ones — and that the political forces ripping divisions in American society were stronger than the resolutions of January.
By years’ end, the biggest take-away from that awful day was the amazing story of Gabby Giffords and her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, who together have worked to help her partially recover from her devastating brain injury. In mid-November, Giffords and Kelly sat down with Diane Sawyer on ABC and shared a glimpse of her remarkable progress.
— Garance Franke-Ruta
9. SEX SCANDALS: WEINER, WU, SCHWARZENEGGER, CAIN
This was a year where the fundamental law of political sex scandals reasserted itself in force: There is no such thing as two. Either one woman comes forward to accuse a man of adultery or harassment, or many do. (Also: smoke, fire, etc.)
On May 27, Queens congressman Anthony Weiner proved that 40-somethings and sexting are a dangerous combination after mistakenly publicly tweeting of a photo of his boxer-clad netherparts. At first he tried to dismiss the image as a hack or prank, but his bizarre comments denying in a televised interview that he could tell whether or not it was his own crotch in the shot kept the story alive. From there things just went downhill, as one woman after another emerged with tales — and chat transcripts and photos — of elaborate online flirtations with the buff married pol, whose wife was pregnant with their first child. A teary press conference and his resignation followed within the month.
Weiner’s wasn’t the only sex scandal of the year. Oregon Rep. David Wu’s erratic behavior in late 2010 — remember the tiger suit? — was followed on July 22 by accusations by an 18-year-old former family friend of unwanted sexual contact with the married congressman. He was out of his job by Aug. 3.
Former California governor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger — accused, earlier in life of making aggressive and unwanted advances on multiple women in his circle — saw his marriage of more than 25 years fall apart after The Los Angeles Times revealed on May 16 that he had fathered a boy, 14, with the family’s housekeeper.
And in October and November, four women were revealed to have accused former pizza-chain executive and Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain of inappropriately sexualizing the workplace and harassing them. Then a fifth, Ginger White, laid down her trump card on Nov. 28, saying she had had a 13-year affair with the married Cain. He denied the charges, but suspended his presidential bid on Dec. 3.
— Garance Franke-Ruta
10. THE BIN LADEN AND AL-AWLAKI KILLINGS
It took almost a decade for the United States to kill the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But on May 1, 2011, President Obama announced that a team of Navy Seals had successfully snuck into Pakistan and shot Osama bin Laden dead. He was hiding in a compound near a military base. News of his death prompted Americans to take to the streets in celebration, and, for a day, Americans could agree that justice had been served by the raid.
Another targeted killing that Obama ordered this year has proved more controversial. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Yemeni imam, was said by U.S. officials to be a senior recruiter and regional commander for al-Qaida and its affiliates. Did his citizenship confer a right to have formal charges brought against him, or evidence of his guilt aired in public, or any kind of due process at all? The Obama administration argued that it did not, and killed him in a drone attack on Sept. 30, 2011, asserting what it regards as its prerogative to kill Americans so long as the president first declares them an enemy combatant. Is that really legal?
By December 2011, when Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder published “The Ally from Hell” in The Atlantic, it was clear that even the bin Laden raid had costs besides the stealth helicopter that crashed in Abbottabad. As their reporting shows, Pakistani hard-liners responded to the raid and the incursion on Pakistani sovereignty it represented by becoming paranoid about American theft of their nuclear weapons. To safeguard their arsenal, they’ve begun covertly moving nuclear bombs around Pakistan in lightly guarded trucks that traverse crowded, traffic-plagued Pakistani streets. As yet, it is unclear whether the bin Laden raid made America more or less safe in the long term.
— Conor Friedersdorf