It’s been a long 2021. Days and weeks, even months, passed quickly, but the year seems long.
President Joe Biden’s inauguration, especially Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” felt like an early civic spring breeze interrupting our continuing flood of political polarization and COVID-19 concerns.
COVID-19 dominated the news and our daily lives with a summer surge, the delta variant and then another surge, the omicron variant, ending the year. A lot happened in 2021, but with few final decisions.
Biden hit the ground running with the most diverse Cabinet in history and a solid inauguration address about fighting for all Americans. He had strong approval ratings for six months that dipped in August after our exit from Afghanistan, something his predecessors talked about but did not do. Few people understand, or even give much attention to U.S. involvement and policy goals in Afghanistan, but the chaotic withdrawal made for bad television.
The 2020 Olympics, held in 2021, in Tokyo seems a long time ago. The most memorable Olympic story might be gymnast Simone Biles confronting the “twisties” that caused her to withdraw from an event but brought international attention to athletes’ mental well-being.
Because of cost, size and competing international athletic competitions, global public interest in the Olympic movement might have peaked.
Undoubtedly the most significant historical event of 2021 was the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the counting of the electoral votes favoring Biden. To date, 727 participants have been criminally charged, with about 50 being sentenced already. Nearly a year later, a House committee is slowly investigating the events leading up to that tragic event.
The Department of Justice has yet to announce that it will conduct its own investigation. The role of Donald Trump has yet to be determined. Public interest and concern have become more partisan as time goes by. It drags on and on.
Derek Chauvin’s conviction in April for killing George Floyd in Minneapolis maintained public order. It’s likely there would have been massive civic unrest if the outcome to the nationally watched trial had been acquittal. Similar results in two other nationally covered trials — Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Daunte Wright in Minnesota — may mean that the criminal justice system performs well when there is high public interest and attention.
An immediate political impact of the peaceful 2021 summer might be the election of new Black mayors in New York City, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, Kansas. This good news for race relations should outlast the artificial political debate about critical race theory.
COVID-19 vaccination and mask requirements are still centers of political acrimony, almost two years since the pandemic began. Local school boards are often embedded in nasty confrontations between mask advocates and opponents. The reading and math debates of previous years have been replaced by arguments about social distancing, home schooling and the lack of substitute teachers and school bus drivers.
Congress passed three major acts to counter the economic impact of COVID-19. A fourth, Biden’s $1.9 trillion “Build Back Better” bill, a spending plan for “soft infrastructure,” is currently pending in the Senate.
The $2.2 trillion CARES Act (2020) provided direct stimulus to taxpayers, small businesses and local and state governments, followed by the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act and the “bipartisan infrastructure bill” that commits another $1 trillion to highways, bridges and broadband internet. Adding all this up totals $7.1 trillion of new federal spending, minus about a half trillion in new taxes, in an economy estimated to be about $23 trillion.
Depending on your understanding of the economy, a 30% stimulus is either a great accomplishment that prevented a pandemic recession or it has laid the groundwork for inflation to bloom.
The annual economic news is conflicting. At the national macroeconomic level, growth in the Gross Domestic Product is expected to be 5.6% and the unemployment rate might decline to 4.2%, both solid numbers, and the stock market is trending ever upward. But gas at the pump is more than $3 per gallon, the supply chain backlog is affecting both small and major purchases, and small businesses and restaurants are closing because of inability to hire and retain workers. Wages are stagnant despite labor shortages, and college graduates are facing huge debt.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide at least two controversial decisions, one involving Mississippi’s abortion restrictions, the other involving state aid to private schools in Maine. The political impact of each could exceed their legal impact.
It’s likely that the most watched political event in the upcoming year will be the national midterm elections in November. With the historical trend since World War II of the president’s party usually losing about 27 House seats, it’s likely that Biden will be dealing with a Republican-controlled House and Senate the second half of his term. In 2010, President Barack Obama’s party lost 59 House seats, while in 1994 Bill Clinton’s Democratic party lost 54 House seats.
We all talk about the increasingly volatile weather, but nobody does anything about it. Droughts, floods, wildfires, ice storms and tornadoes disrupted lives in many regions of the country in 2021 as we fiddled about the future of coal rather than speeding up the development of renewable energy. Unstable weather patterns introduce more uncertainty at a time when anxiety and depression have been increasing.
The year 2021 may have felt so long because of three fronts — the economy, Trump’s future and the pandemic. The past year is likely to have been the calm before the 2022 storm.