Hope and Change

*In 2008 the United States, tired of Bush’s wars and the Great Recession, elected the Democratic candidate Barrack Obama, a young Senator from Illinois and America’s first Black president (with Joe Biden as VP), over John McCain, by a margin of 69,498,516 popular votes (365 electoral votes) to 59,948,323 (173 electoral votes), despite McCain’s attempts to appeal to women by choosing a female Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska.

*At the time, many people hoped that the Election of 2008 showed that America had moved beyond the racial tensions that had troubled the country for so long into an era of post-racial politics, but in fact, it would simply bring those tensions to the forefront of people’s attention.

*The signature policy of the Obama administration was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, passed in 2010.  Starting in 2014, this required employers of more than 50 people to provide health insurance to their employees and anyone who did not get insurance through their employer to purchase it for themselves—a provision known as the individual mandate.  Employers and individuals who did not comply would have to pay a tax penalty, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012 in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius as an example of Congress’s power to tax.  The government would help some people purchase insurance if they needed it, provided they made no more than 4 times the official poverty level.  Furthermore, insurance companies could no longer deny people insurance based on their health or other factors, but requiring everyone to buy health insurance would allow the premiums of the healthy to offset the increased cost of supporting the sick.

*The government also offered increased funding for Medicare, although states that accepted it would also have to increase their own spending on Medicare, and the share they would have to pay would increase over time.

*The Affordable Care Act resulted in many more American receiving health insurance, but many self-employed people (or employees of small companies) making too much to receive subsidies from the government saw their insurance premiums go up significantly, and many people who already had insurance saw their policies change, sometimes for the worse, despite President Obama’s promise that if you liked your insurance, you could keep it.

*Obamacare was controversial for several reasons.  Increasing health insurance premiums for many middle-class Americans were unpopular.  Some religious groups resented the fact that the insurance plans they had to pay for were now required to cover certain types of birth control that some groups disapproved of, although in the Supreme Court Case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and related cases, it was determined that some groups, including closely-held corporations, could provide plans that did not include certain types of birth control.

*In 2017, the individual mandate was effectively repealed by Congress by resetting the tax penalty for non-compliance to zero dollars.  Congress also changed were certain requirements about what insurance plans had to provide, allowing people to buy cheap plans that do not cover much.  These rules went into effect in 2019.  While this allowed people who did not want health insurance to stop buying it, it drove up costs for others, because the costs of health insurance are no longer be shared among everyone, and it is mostly be healthy people who choose not to buy insurance, placing significant hardship on insurance companies and on those who continue to buy comprehensive health care plans.

*Although Barrack Obama’s election was supposed to be the start of post-racial politics in America, his presidency saw increased racial violence against African-Americans or, perhaps, just more attention paid to it. 

*In 2013, a suspicious-looking, but unarmed, Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot by a mixed race white/Hispanic man in Florida.  The shooter was acquitted because he said he was acting in self-defence under Florida’s generous laws on self-defence.  Some saw this as an act of racism both by the shooter and the court that acquitted him.  This led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement which attempted to draw attention to violence against African-Americans and the frequent lack of consequences for those who committed such violence.

*This movement grew after the police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominantly Black city with a predominantly white police force.  Although Brown just robbed a convenience store and did struggle with police who tried to question him, some saw his shooting as an excessive use of force.  When the officer who shot him was found innocent of civil rights violations by the Department of Justice and not indicted by a grand jury, riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, which were partly suppressed with military surplus vehicles belonging to the Fergusson police department. 

*In 2015, riots broke out after a Black man named Freddie Gray sustained severe injuries while being transported in a police van to jail in Baltimore.  Although in good health before being arrested, he suffered injuries to his neck, including his vocal box, and spinal cord and fell into a coma either while being arrested or while being transported by the police.  He died the next day and no police officer was punished.

*Other protests and demonstrations have continued since then, claiming that police and others frequently mistreat African-Americans without consequences.  On the other hand, this is seen by some as disrespectful of the law enforcement personnel who keep Americans safe, and resentment against the Black Lives Matter movement is also strong.

*Barrack Obama also suffered a great deal of backlash (but also gained praise from many other Americans) for his support of gay rights, including his decision to overturn the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, his decision not to enforce the Defence of Marriage Act, and his praise for the Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges which legalised gay marriage throughout the country, overturning several states’ laws banning it.

*In December, 2010, the world’s attention was turned to the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings against dictatorial government and high unemployment in several Middle Eastern countries, for which President Obama offered various levels of support.

*In Tunisia, a democratic government was created that still stands, although unemployment remains high.

*In Egypt, a democratic government was created, but when the Muslim Brotherhood won a majority in the new government it began suppressing those it opposed, and was eventually overthrown by the military who installed one of their own as president, who now suppresses the Muslim Brotherhood and other critics.

*In Libya, dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed, but Libya has struggled to create a stable government in his place.

*In Syria an uprising against Bashar Assad gained a lot of ground, but did not overthrow their dictator.  While the US offered some support to the rebels, and President Obama said the use of chemical weapons by Assad would be a red line that would result in a strong American response, when Assad actually used poison gas, the US did nothing to punish him, in part because Assad has been supported by Russia.  The civil war in Syria created a power vacuum that was filled, in part, by a new terrorist organisation.

*The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS for short) was one of several groups fighting against the Syrian government, and in 2014 they gained control of a large part of north-eastern Syria and northern Iraq, and declared the area they ruled to be a restored Caliphate that would eventually spread to control the entire world in the name of Islam.  In other parts of the world, from West Africa to the Philippines, local Islamist groups declared themselves to be leading provinces of the Islamic State in their own regions.  This made them the only terrorist group to rule a country, or something very much like it, in their own right, and Muslims from Europe, the US, and elsewhere went to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS.

*In places the ruled, ISIS enforced strict Sharia law of an extreme Sunni variety, and indeed, were initially welcomed by Sunnis who felt marginalised and mistreated by the Shia leaders of Syria and Iraq.  They oppressed other groups, particularly persecuting Christians and Yazidis, killing many men and boys and forcing many women and girls into marriages to ISIS jihadists or simply using them as sex slaves.

*In response, the United States and Iran began to support the Iraqi military against ISIS and Russia expanded its support of the Syrian government so it could fight ISIS more effectively.  The US also expanded support for Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and Syria, and in a slow process lasting from March 2015 through November 2017 ISIS was driven from most of the territory it controlled, in part as Sunni Muslims who had supported it turned against it, particularly once it began to decline.

*Barrack Obama also continued—and expanded—George Bush’s program of using unmanned aerial drones to target terrorists overseas.  This has allowed the United States to kill many enemies without directly risking the lives of American soldiers, but it has been controversial for potentially violating the sovereignty of the countries where the strikes are carried out, for sometimes killing innocent people through targeting the wrong person or by hitting innocent bystanders, and because in some cases the targets have been American citizens who were killed by the U.S. government without a trial.

*In the War on Terror, Barrack Obama did order a mission to kill Osama bin Laden, who had been located in Pakistan.  U.S. Navy Seals raided his compound and killed bin Laden and four other people shortly after 1:00 a.m. on 2 May, 2011.

*In 2015, Iran reached a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany whereby Iran would significantly reduce its stockpiles of enriched Uranium, reduce its capacity to produce more, and otherwise limit its ability to produce materials that could be used to build nuclear weapons for 13 to 15 years, and open itself up to inspection to make sure it was abiding by the agreement.  In return, many economic sanctions against Iran would be lifted.  Iran seemed to largely follow the letter of the agreement, although some military sites were declared off-limits to inspectors who should have had the right to inspect them.  Still, the International Atomic Energy Agency was satisfied that Iran was complying with the agreement.  In turn, foreign investment in Iran picked up.  In May, 2018, Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement, seriously undermining it, although the other parties involved all claimed they would continue to permit trade with Iran, but the fact that using American banks to do so will be impossible has make that hard to do.

*Obama's decision not to launch a major response to Syria crossing a red line with the use of poison gas may have encouraged China to become more assertive, as did the Chinese Communist Party's choice of a new leader, Xi Jinping in March, 2013.

*In November of 2013, China designated a new Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, much farther from the country's coastline than is typical, and covering islands claimed by China but also by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  China said that any aircraft flying through this zone would have to inform China in advance.  Three days later, Barrack Obama sent two B-52 bombers through the edge of the new ADIZ without telling China first.

*China also began putting sand, concrete, and eventually airstrips and anti-aircraft guns on coral reefs and submerged rocks in the South China Sea to strengthen its claims to parts of that Sea viewed by most countries as international waters or even the territory of other countries in the region.   This led many of those countries to seek closer relations with the United States, which Obama welcomed as part of his diplomatic Pivot to Asia.  Under Presidents Obama and Trump, the US Navy has conducted Freedom of Navigation missions, sailing warships close to the rocks China has been fortifying, defending the Freedom of the Seas.

*In 2016, Barrack Obama could not run for re-election, and the contest to succeed him was bitter.  The two main Democratic rivals for the nomination were Hillary Clinton, who represented the moderate, mainstream Democratic Party shaped by her husband in the 1990s, and Bernie Sanders, who was technically not a Democrat at all, but an Independent senator from Vermont who described himself as a socialist.

*Sanders pushed for a very liberal agenda that appealed to many Democrats, funding his campaign almost entirely with small individual donations rather than gifts from large donors, corporations, or political action committees.  He particularly appealed to younger Democrats when he proposed forgiving college loans and providing college educations for free.  He also wanted to replace Obamacare with a single-payer health care system, with the US Government paying directly for all health care.  He proposed a higher minimum wage of $15 an hour (up from $7.25).  He also criticised many American free trade deals, saying that they were a race to the bottom as countries competed to offer the lowest wages in order to sell the cheapest goods to each other. 

*Hillary Clinton later adopted some of Sanders’s attitudes.  Despite having supported free trade deals in the past, she now became critical of them, too, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she has helped negotiate as Secretary of State, but now turned against.  She also proposed raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour.

*In the end, Clinton won the nomination with a majority of votes in the primaries and the vast majority of the superdelegates who are chosen by the party leadership rather than by the people.  However, the primaries revealed, and deepened, a split between a moderate wing and a very liberal (calling itself progressive) wing of the Democratic Party.

*The Republican primaries began with seventeen major candidates, but after a bitter primary season Donald Trump, a real estate developer and reality TV star, was chosen to run for the presidency.  He promised to Make America Great Again by ending or renegotiating foreign trade deals to reduce imports (thus protecting American industry and reducing the trade deficit), to limit immigration, particularly from the Middle East and Mexico (partly by building a wall along the border), to invest in infrastructure, to Drain the Swamp of corruption in Washington, D.C., and to reconsider and possibly end American involvement in overseas conflicts and alliances such as NATO in a policy of America First.

*The primaries and the election itself were certainly influenced by levels of campaign donations not seen before the Twenty-First Century, as the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission had determined the organizations such as corporations and unions, as legal persons, had the right to free speech and thus could essentially make unlimited donations to funds supporting political causes (although not unlimited donations directly to individual politicians’ campaigns).  This has brought far more money, with many ways to conceal who is donating the money, into politics.

*Although in the Election of 2016 Hillary Clinton won the popular vote 65,853,514 to 62,984,828, her supporters were mainly concentrated in a few highly populated states on the West coast and in the Northeast.  Donald Trump won the electoral college 304 to 227 in part by appealing to voters in rural areas and in the Rust Belt who felt the Great Recession had never ended for them, because most had not benefitted from the Information Revolution that brought high-tech service jobs and other internet-related employment to many urban areas, while many had seen their industrial jobs move to foreign countries where local people would work for lower wages—free trade may help a country’s economy as a whole, but it can hurt many individuals in affected industries (while in turn helping people in other fields). 

*Many, too, were concerned about cultural and demographic change in America that seemed to be changing the country that had grown up in significantly.  Many social conservatives who had supported the Democrats for economic reasons (such as union members in industrial areas) also felt looked down on and even rejected by the increasingly liberal Democratic leadership, such as when Obama in 2008 dismissed the economic and social concerns of Midwestern working-class Americans by saying, ‘They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’  Likewise, Hillary Clinton caused offence by describing Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables.’

*All these changes are probably part of the creation of a Seventh Two-Party System in America.

*There have also been suspicions of Russian interference in the election, by manipulating news and other posts on social media, particularly Facebook, releasing sensitive information about Hillary Clinton, and possibly even tampering with electron voting machines, in hopes of electing a pro-Russian president, as Trump was believed to be.  On the other hand, Donald Trump claimed that his margin of victory would have been greater had there not been voter fraud in a number of states that he barely won.

*On 20 January, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as America’s oldest president at the age of 70, and he promised to Make America Great Again.

This page last updated 14 May, 2021.
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