5 Events That Shaped the United States in 2014

Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In his final press conference of last year, President Barack Obama predicted 2014 would be a breakthrough year for the United States. And, last Friday, he asserted that prediction had been fulfilled.

Obama claimed the United States has made “significant strides where it counts.” Topping the list were “the steps we took early on to rescue our economy and rebuild it on a new foundation,” the president said. Those steps “helped make 2014 the strongest year for job growth since the 1990s,” he added. In the 57 months of economic recovery, U.S. businesses have created nearly 11 million new jobs. “Almost all the job growth that we’ve seen have been in full-time positions,” Obama continued, and “much of the recent pickup in job growth has been higher-paying industries.” And while his use of the word “much” is helpfully ambiguous, the most recent employment situation report did note that the job gains were broad based enough and big enough to support career creation.

The president highlighted the economic benefits of the boom in domestic natural gas production. He explained that the government’s bailout of the automobile industry was successfully concluded. On Friday morning, the Department of the Treasury announced that the government’s final shares in the auto lender Ally Financial would be sold, concluding its involvement in the industry’s recovery. And while the Treasury lost approximately $10 billion on the auto industry bailout, which also included aid to General Motors and Chrysler, the broader bank and auto bailout measure known as the Trouble Asset Relief Program, or TARP, brought taxpayers a tidy profit. And American automakers are on track for its strongest year since 2005. Obama also reminded Americans that thanks to the Affordable Care Act, 10 million people have gained health insurance, pushing the uninsured rate to a near-record low. “Since the law passed, the price of health care has risen at its slowest rate in about 50 years,” he added, even though that assertion has some caveats. He noted that the government’s budget deficit has shrunk by two-thirds since he took office. “Meanwhile, around the world America’s leading,” Obama claimed, pointing to U.S. participation in the fight against ISIL, in checking Russian aggression in Ukraine, in combating Ebola, and in addressing climate change.

But the successes woven together by the president as the narrative for 2014 are not uniformly lauded, nor is all of the United States political elite convinced everything is as good as he said. For example, in July, Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS News’ Face the Nation and chief Washington correspondent, aired the view that the United States was in “a very dangerous time right now. Even more so, perhaps, than at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In those days we had a clearly identifiable enemy. We knew what they were up to. Now we seem to be immersed in a series of events that are totally out of control.”

Neither assessment is completely wrong; but also neither is completely correct. After all, “we live in a complex world and at a challenging time,” said President Barack Obama at the end of a unexpected national address from the White House press room back in July. Here is a look at the complex events that made 2014 both a breakout year and a challenging year.

1. Ferguson

Source: : Joe Raedle/Getty Images News

Source: : Joe Raedle/Getty Images News

When Michael Brown — an unarmed black teenager who was two days away from starting college — was shot and killed on August 9, by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., the reality of racial inequality in America became front page news. It deeply divided the country. And when the grand jury returned no indictment after months of sifting through contradictory witness statements, protests cropped up in hundreds of U.S. cities and rage echoed across the country. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but when violence did occur, it exacerbated the (often racial and partisan) divisions in the public’s opinion on whether Wilson should have been indicted, let alone whether he should be convicted of criminal charges.

The Ferguson grand jury decision tapped into so much emotion because of how it fit into the context of a larger, historical narrative about race and justice in the United States. For black Americans, it was just another reminder that the country’s judicial system does not treat black and white citizens the same. And that is a theme that resonated far beyond Ferguson; for context, a 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed that seven in 10 African-Americans felt blacks were treated less fairly than whites in dealings with the police, while only fewer than four in 10 whites felt the same. And ProPublica found that young black men were 21 times as likely as their white peers to be shot to death by the police.

In may be a common platitude in American law that a grand jury would “indict a ham sandwich,” but the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner made clear that when police officers are involved, the calculus is different. In an editorial piece, The New York Times wrote that “many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings.” That distrust “presents a grave danger to the civic fabric of the United States.”

“It’s sort of a quasi-movement that’s afoot,” Matthew Whitaker, a history professor who directs the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University, told CNN, describing the protests. “And what we can attribute this to is the fact these things seem to happen so regularly now that the frustrations folks are feeling are leading them to plan almost in advance.”

These protests have generated their own rhetoric. Signs across the country sport the line, “hands up, don’t shoot,” while protesters used the gesture. Several members of the St. Louis Rams entered the field at a November game with their hands up, sparking backlash from the St. Louis Police Officers Association, but not the league. Joining the protest lexicon was the phrase, “I can’t break,” the last words uttered by Eric Garner before his death. Garner died after being placed in an illegal chokehold by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was trying to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. The medical examiner confirmed he died as a result of the chokehold, and ruled Garner’s death a homicide. But the grand jury did not return an indictment. And that decision added urgency to the calls for police reform and the protests that drew thousands to lie down in the streets of New York City.

Adding to the complexity of the unfolding dialogue on race, law enforcement, and justice is the this week’s shooting of two police officers — Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos — in Brooklyn by Ismaaiyl Brinsley.

2. The NFL’s domestic violence problems

Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images News

Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images News

The leaked video of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking then-fiance, now-wife Janay Palmer to floor showed the public the extent of the NFL’s domestic violence problems. Obtained by TMZ, the video was likened to the Zapruder film because of its impact. Despite the league’s sky-high ratings and huge profits, the domestic abuse charges are not something it can ignore.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell eventually apologized for how he mishandled Rice’s arrest and punishment. Originally, Rice was given only a two-game suspension by the NFL, which was later raised to six before he was indefinitely suspended. For comparison, players have missed entire seasons for repeatedly smoking marijuana. At an August news conference, months after the incident, the commissioner, who was under pressure to resign, announced a plan to counter domestic abuse by mandating all players and staff on the league’s 32 teams undergo domestic violence education and training. And whether the plan will have any effected is disputed.

Critics have asked why it has taken Goodell so long to take a tough stance on domestic assault. According to a Sport’s Illustrated tally, 14 different players have been arrested for violence against women over the past two years alone. The fact that Goodell’s decision to address NFL players’ poor domestic assault records came only after those records were well-documented, showing him to be a man cornered, not a man anxious to make change. But regulation changes are needed to adequately address the problem.

Analysis conducted by FiveThirtyEight’s Allison McCann found that the NFL’s punishment of personal conduct violations has not only been inconsistent, but far less harsh (on average) than for drug offenses. These incidents include the one-day suspension of Larry Johnson, who spit his drink in a woman’s face, and Ricky Manning, who assaulted a man outside a Denny’s restaurant; the two-game suspension of Jeremy Bridges, who pointed a gun at a stripper; and, the three-game suspension of Marshawn Lynch who was arrested for having a gun in his car. Multiple DUI arrests and sexual assault garnered players slightly longer suspensions. But for the 15 cases of domestic violence identified by McCann, the average number of games suspended was 1.5. By comparison, drug offenses — particularly performance-enhancing drugs — have uniformed punishments because the league has issued specific regulations. Until Goodell issues a specific policy for domestic violence, the baseline suspension is now six games

Public outrage over the NFL’s cavalier treatment of domestic abuse found its way to the docket of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has oversight authority over sports of all levels. “Its very clear to me that getting these players back on the field was more important than addressing instance of sexual assault, domestic violence, or even child abuse. The leagues and the unions simply brush these problems aside and [leave] it to the courts,” Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, said at a December congressional hearing. “The leagues have done little or nothing in response. In fact, the press has reported that a culture of silence within the league often prevents victims from reporting their abuse to law enforcement. This has to change,” said West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller.

But NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton doubts the league will make substantial efforts to deal with domestic violence. “Are we going to allow men to knock out women, abuse women, knock out children and we’re going to have to wait six months to get spin control and get some people in here and buy out some more people?” he told CNN. “I played for 18 years in this league. I’ve seen coverups in this league just like we see in Washington and on Wall Street. And it continues.”

3. The disappearance of MH370

Source: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

That the Malaysian airliner disappeared in early March without a trace served as a tragic reminder that even with the great technological capabilities of mankind, the world still can be unknowable. After taking off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia with 239 aboard, the Boeing 777 last made communication with air traffic control less than one hour into the flight to Beijing, and the plane left the range of Malaysian military radar 200 nautical miles northwest of Penang. The multinational search effort covered the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, where the flight’s signal was lost on secondary surveillance radar, before being expanded to the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. A search was also conducted in the southern Indian Ocean, along the southern arc — or corridor — of the plane’s possible route, more than 1,500 miles off the southwest coast of Australia. The current phase of the investigation began in October; it will take an estimated 12 months to inspect the seafloor at a cost of more than 52 million Australian dollars.

Even though the search became the largest and the most expensive in aviation history, no confirmed flight debris has been found. And the lack of any conclusive information has led to an avalanche of theories — conspiracy  or otherwise. On March 24, 16 days after the plane was lost, the Malaysian government concluded that “flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean,” but gave no explanation for why the plane fell out of the sky. As a result, a whole host of theories cropped to explain the mysterious disappearance.

The most conspiratorial theory is that the plane was hijacked, which is supported by the fact that no distress signal was sent. In fact, several British publications reported this week that ex-Proteus Airlines head Marc Dugain believes the U.S. Air Force shot down the plane to avoid a 9/11-style terror attack. Some have claimed the North Koreans hijacked the plane. The fact that the missing aircraft was not in the 300-square-mile patch of ocean where “pings” — thought to be from the plane’s black box — boosted a variety of strange claims, including Reddit commenters who believe the plane’s disappearance was the result of a black hole, the Illuminati, or aliens. It was also suggested the disappearance was predestined. “Interesting numerology,” wrote one user, RedditB. “Flight 370 disappears on 3/7 while reportedly traveling 3,700 km. Flight 370 flew at an altitude of 37,000 feet when it was last reported using flight tracking software. Luigi Maraldi, age 37, was one of the individuals whose passport was stolen. Malaysia Airlines is one of Asia’s largest, flying nearly 37,000 passengers daily.”  More realistically, it has also been theorized that the plane ran out of fuel, or the pilot committed suicide, or that some mechanical failure took the plane out of the sky.

4. The border crisis

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Drawing much of the national immigration focus over the past year and keeping debate over reform possibilities flaming, the deluge of unaccompanied migrant children over the southwestern United States border throughout spring and summer presented a new, humanitarian crisis for the American government. Over a 12-month period ending on September 30, immigration agents picked up 68,541 unaccompanied children fleeing from violence and poverty in Central America — a 77% increase from the previous year. For opponents of laxer immigration laws, that statistic prompted an even more hawkish stance on reform, and Senator Rand Paul even gave his support for ending the 2012 program that deferred deportation of immigrants who came to the United States as young children.

That is not the only figure driving the debate. Any lasting reform of American immigration law would need to include provisions for the estimated 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States, allow for the legal immigration of the low-wage workers necessary to the American economy, and set strategies to handle future influx of undocumented immigrants. Complicating this situation is the politics of immigration, a partisan argument distorted by the disputed role undocumented immigrants play in the U.S. economy, the nebulous connection between illegal immigration and crime, and lingering xenophobia. Politics have prevented lawmakers from the substantial policymaking needed to enhance border security, update the system for legal immigration, set a path for legalizing immigrants who grew up in this country, and for dealing with humanitarian issues in Central America.

Last year, by an extremely partisan vote of 68 to 32,  the Senate passed an immigration reform bill. Had it not died in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, the reform would have cleared the way for millions of undocumented immigrants to become citizens, created an easier immigration system to attract workers from all over the world, and devoted unprecedented resources to strengthen border security. But, for a vast majority of congressional Republicans, that first measure was unacceptable, which they refer to as amnesty and described as a reward for rule breakers.

President Obama took that legislative failure as evidence he would have to act unilaterally to achieve immigration reform — which he did on November 20, offering temporary legal status to as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants and an indefinite reprieve for deportation. Republicans have decried this unilateral decision as a gross overreach. His announcement so angered congressional Republicans that some more conservative lawmakers wanted to use a possible government shutdown as leverage to block immigration reform. And Senator Rand Paul issued his own bill to repeal the deferred deportations. Of course, it is interesting to note that both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush took bold executive action on immigration. Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act provided a path to legalization for up to 3 million undocumented immigrants if they had been “continuously” present in the U.S. since January 1, 1982. Bush unilaterally implemented a Senate bill (which failed to pass the House) that prohibited the administration from deporting family members of immigrants. And Obama’s action does not immediately put immigrants on the path to citizenship — that is something that requires an act of Congress.

5. The U.S. economy

Source: Bytemarks / Flickr

Source: Bytemarks / Flickr

The United States economy began 2014 slowly. When the Department of  Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis released its third and final calculation of first-quarter gross domestic product at the end of June, government calculations showed that during the first three months of 2014,  economic output had contracted at a worse-than-expected 2.9%. That was the first negative growth posted in three years. But growth improved in each sequential quarter. The Bureau of Economic Analysis announced December 23 that the American economy grew last quarter at its fastest rate in more than a decade, which is the strongest proof that the recovery has finally stabilized more than five years after it began.

This news satisfied Wall Street traders; the Dow Jones Industrial average rose above 18,000 for the first time, and the S&P 500 hit its 50th record high of 2014.

Growth has been spurred, in part, by steadily declining unemployment. The most recent government jobs report showed that employers had expanded payrolls by 300,000 positions last month. Furthermore, “consumption growth appears to have accelerated further in Q4, with plunging gasoline prices shifting upside to more discretionary areas,” Ted Wieseman, an economist with Morgan Stanley, wrote in a client note obtained by the Times.

Even though the employment situation is improving and the U.S. economy is measurably stronger, the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the middle class has never been wider.

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