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Imagine a nation in which the people vote, but the person who wins the election does not get to be president. Imagine a time when a president lies about an affair under oath but does not lose his job and instead is the most popular outgoing president ever. Imagine a nation in which greedy bankers cause a major economic collapse but then the government uses taxpayer money to save the bankers. Imagine a nation with a president who tells thousands of lies.
These are all descriptions of the United States in the past 30 years. George W. Bush and Donald Trump both lost the popular vote but became president by winning the electoral vote. Bill Clinton was impeached because of lies he told about his affair but left office with a 66% approval rating. The TARP bailouts saved the bankers who caused the Great Recession. President Trump told more than 12 lies every day during his time in office.
Doesn’t this mean that something is wrong with our political system? Shouldn’t we do something about it? How can these seemingly impossible things happen in our country?
What do you think? Is our political system broken?
GEORGE H. W. BUSH AND BILL CLINTON
President George H. W. Bush was the last of his generation to hold the office of the presidency. A World War II veteran, Bush had made a fortune as a businessman and had then gone on to a long and successful career in government, serving as head of the CIA and as vice president for Ronald Reagan. Although he promised to carry on Reagan’s economic legacy, the problems Bush inherited made it difficult to do so. Reagan’s policies of cutting taxes and increasing defense spending had exploded the federal budget deficit, making it three times larger in 1989 than when Reagan took office in 1980. Bush was further constrained by the emphatic pledge he had made at the 1988 Republican Convention, “read my lips: no new taxes” and found himself in the difficult position of trying to balance the budget and reduce the deficit without breaking his promise. He also faced a Congress controlled by the Democrats, who wanted to raise taxes on the rich. When he eventually broke his “no new taxes” pledge, he damaged his standing among conservatives who were crucial to his reelection chances.
The contrast between George H. W. Bush and William “Bill” Clinton could not have been greater. Bill Clinton was a Baby Boomer born in 1946 in Hope, Arkansas. Compared to Bush, Clinton was relaxed and approachable. He had excellent interpersonal skills and could make those around him feel like he really understood and cared about their problems.
Clinton’s background distinguished him from the president as well. Whereas Bush was wealthy, Clinton had come from tough beginnings. Despite having a troubled home life, Clinton was highly intelligent and was an excellent student. He took an interest in politics after meeting President John F. Kennedy. As a student at Georgetown University he supported both the civil rights and antiwar movements and ran for student council president. In 1968, Clinton received a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. From Oxford he moved on to Yale where he earned his law degree in 1973. Clinton was elected Arkansas’s youngest governor in 1978. Losing the office to his Republican opponent in 1980, he retook the governor’s mansion in 1982 and remained governor of Arkansas until 1992 when he announced his candidacy for president.
During his campaign against George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton described himself as a New Democrat, a member of a faction of the Democratic Party that, like the Republicans, favored free trade and deregulation. He tried to appeal to the middle class by promising higher taxes on the rich and reform of the welfare system. Although Clinton garnered only 43% of the popular vote, he easily won in the Electoral College with 370 votes to President Bush’s 188. Bush lost support among conservatives for both breaking his “no new taxes” pledge and because Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote, the best showing by any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt ran for the Bull Moose Party in 1912.
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Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton campaigning for president as a New Democrat in 1992. He was the first Baby Boomer to be elected president.
CLINTON AND THE CONTRACT WITH AMERICA
True to his promise as a New Democrat, Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy, lowered taxes for the middle and lower classes and lowered tariffs to increase trade. Clinton worked to convince the Senate to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The treaty had been negotiated by the Bush Administration, and the leaders of all three nations had signed it in December 1992. However, because of strong opposition from American labor unions and some in Congress who feared the loss of jobs to Mexico, the treaty had not been ratified before Clinton took office. To allay the concerns of unions, he added an agreement to protect workers and also one to protect the environment.
During Clinton’s administration, the nation experienced the longest period of economic expansion in its history, almost ten consecutive years. Year after year, job growth increased and the deficit shrank. Increased tax revenue and budget cuts erased the federal budget deficit and the government began to run as surplus. Reduced government borrowing freed up capital for private-sector use, and lower interest rates in turn fueled more growth. During the Clinton years, more people owned homes than ever before in the country’s history. Much of the prosperity of the 1990s was related to technological change and the advent of new information systems. In 1994, the Clinton Administration became the first to launch an official White House website.
An important and popular part of Clinton’s domestic agenda was healthcare reform. Clinton appointed his wife Hillary Clinton, a Yale Law School graduate and accomplished attorney, to head his Task Force on National Health Care Reform in 1993. The Health Security Act presented to Congress that year sought to offer universal coverage by raising taxes and using the money to pay everyone’s medical bills. The outlook for the plan was good in 1993. It had the support of a number of institutions like the American Medical Association and the Health Insurance Association of America. But in relatively short order the political winds changed. As budget battles distracted the administration and the midterm elections of 1994 approached, Republicans began to recognize the strategic benefits of opposing reform. Moderate conservatives dubbed the reform proposals “Hillarycare” and argued that the bill was an unwarranted expansion of the powers of the federal government that would interfere with people’s ability to choose the doctors they wanted.
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Newt Gingrich holds a copy of the Contract with America during a press conference. His proposals helped propel Republicans to electoral victory in 1994.
To rally Republican opposition to Clinton and the Democrats, Newt Gingrich, leader of the Republican minority in the House of Representatives, published a plan they called the Contract with America. It listed eight specific reforms or initiatives the Republicans would enact if they gained a majority in Congress in the upcoming midterm elections. Most of these dealt with reducing spending by eliminating government waste and most of the wording of the contract had been borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s speeches.
Lacking support, the healthcare bill died in Congress. Dislike of the proposed healthcare plan on the part of conservatives and the bold strategy laid out in the Contract with America enabled the Republican Party to retake both the Senate and House of Representatives in 1994. This Republican Revolution was the most sweeping change of power in Washington in decades. Newt Gingrich took the gavel as the Speaker of the House of Representatives becoming the primary political opponent of President Clinton.
The Republicans used their new power to push for conservative reforms. Clinton responded to his party’s electoral loss by finding ways to work with the Republicans. One law they negotiated and passed was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, known better as welfare reform. The act set time limits on welfare benefits and required most recipients to begin working within two years of receiving assistance.
Some historians view the Republican victories in 1994 as a major turning point in the history of modern politics. Newt Gingrich was different from many older politicians in that he was more combative, and more willing to pick fights, even those he probably would not win in order to show Republican voters that he was on their side. As time went by, this style was adopted by many more members of Congress and picking fights and refusing to compromise for the sake of impressing voters has become common today. In fact, politicians with a reputation for working with the other party often lose in primary elections to candidates who promise ideological purity.
THE IMPEACHMENT OF PRESIDENT CLINTON
From the moment he entered national politics, Bill Clinton’s opponents had attempted to tie both him and Hillary to crimes and unethical activates. Multiple women had accused the president of rape and sexual abuse, but he had been able to shake these allegations, although they were most likely true. Some accusations were almost certainly false. One such wild story held that Clinton had murdered his childhood friend to prevent him from revealing secrets he knew about the president. One accusation the Clintons could not shake, however, was of possible improper involvement in a failed real estate deal associated with the Whitewater Development Corporation in Arkansas in the 1970s and 1980s. Kenneth Starr, a former judge, was appointed to investigate the matter.
While Starr was never able to prove any wrongdoing in the Whitewater deal, he soon turned up other allegations. Starr’s team eventually learned about Monica Lewinsky, a young White House intern. Both Lewinsky and Clinton denied under oath that they had had a sexual relationship. The evidence, however, indicated otherwise, and Starr began to investigate the possibility that Clinton had committed perjury by lying under oath. Again, Clinton denied any relationship and even went on national television to assure the American people that he had done nothing wrong. His claim, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” reminded many Americans of Nixon’s claim, “I am not a crook.” After receiving a promise of immunity, Lewinsky turned over evidence of her affair with Clinton, and the president admitted he and Lewinsky did an affair. He continued to deny that he had lied under oath.
Eager to force their political enemy and a man they believed unethical out of office, Republicans voted in the House of Representatives to send articles of impeachment to the Senate, charging Clinton with lying under oath and obstructing justice. In February 1998, the Senate voted 45-55 on the perjury charge and 50-50 on obstruction of justice. A few Republican senators from New England saved Clinton from losing his job when they voted against impeachment. For them, the entire process was not about removing a president for a crime, but instead about political vendetta and unethical behavior.
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This famous photograph was taken a few months after President Clinton admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Hillary did not leave him or move out of the White House and their teenage daughter, Chelsea helped bring them together. The photograph was taken as the First Family walked across the White House lawn to a helicopter.
Many thought that Clinton should have resigned the way Nixon had done instead of forcing the country to endure his impeachment. However, Clinton hung on, always believing that he could survive and outsmart his opponents. In the end, he did and remained popular, in large part because of his successful foreign policy endeavors in the Balkans and because the economy was doing well. He left office at the end of his second term with an approval rating of 66%, the highest of any outgoing president. Despite his popularity, the suspicion of wrongdoing following both Bill and Hillary Clinton into the future.
BUSH V. GORE
Despite Clinton’s high approval rating, his vice president and the 2000 Democratic nominee for president, Al Gore, was eager to distance himself from scandal. Unfortunately, he also alienated Clinton loyalists and lost some of the benefit of Clinton’s genuine popularity. On the Republican side, where strategists promised to “restore honor and dignity” to the White House, voters selected George W. Bush, governor of Texas and eldest son of former president Bush. Bush had the robust support of both the Christian Right and the Republican leadership.
One hundred million votes were cast in the 2000 election, and Gore topped Bush in the popular vote by 540,000 ballots, or 0.5%. The race was so close that news reports declared each candidate the winner at various times during the evening. It all came down to Florida, where Bush had a tiny lead over Gore after the votes were counted. Because there seemed to be irregularities in four counties traditionally dominated by Democrats, especially in largely African American precincts, Gore called for a recount of the ballots by hand. Whoever won Florida would get the state’s 25 electoral votes and secure the presidency.
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The 2000 election was not decided for over a month as recounts and court proceedings dragged on. Finally the Supreme Court decided the election by a 5-4 vote.
Both sides went to court to argue about how to conduct the recount and America waited to find out who their next president would be as the case wound its way through the court system, eventually ending up at the Supreme Court. The case, Bush v. Gore was decided 5-4 to stop the recount. Bush received Florida’s electoral votes and became the next president of the United States with a total of 271 votes in the Electoral College to Gore’s 266. It was only the second time in the nation’s history that a son of a former president won the office himself. It was also the first time 112 that the winner of the popular vote did not win the Electoral College and become president.
GEORGE W. BUSH
George W. Bush is mostly remembered as the president during the War on Terror who launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. However, during his eight years in the White House he also initiated important domestic programs. In fact, before the September 11 Attacks he thought he would be remembered as the “Education President.”
Bush and many Americans at the time believed that the best way to improve education was to hold schools accountable for raising standards and enabling students to meet them. Bush proudly signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which created a system of testing to measure student performance in reading and math. Schools whose students performed poorly on the tests would be labeled “in need of improvement.” There were punishments for schools that did not meet the high standards. In the end, more testing did not help all schools and proved to be unpopular. The law was once again changed in 2015 when President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act. Students still are required to take standardized tests, but states have much more control over how to help struggling schools.
The second proposed solution was to give students the opportunity to attend a school of their choice outside their neighborhoods. Some of these might be charter schools, institutions funded by local tax money in the same way as public schools, but able to accept private donations. Charter schools are exempt from some of the rules public schools must follow giving them more freedom to innovate and experiment with new ideas to help students succeed. President Bush also encouraged states to grant vouchers to parents. Using a voucher, parents could send their children to private schools. The vouchers were funded by tax revenue. Unsurprisingly, teachers unions were strongly opposed to vouchers and fought against them.
Like most Republicans since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Bush believed in supply-side economics and in 2001, Bush and the Republicans pushed through a tax cut by lowering tax rates for everyone. However, they gave the largest cuts to those in the highest tax brackets. The cuts were controversial. The rich were getting richer while the middle and lower classes bore a proportionally larger share of the nation’s tax burden. By 2005, dramatic examples of income inequity were increasing. For example, the CEO of Wal-Mart earned $15 million. It would take over 900 average workers at Wal-Mart to make that much. Even as productivity climbed, workers’ incomes stagnated. With a larger share of the wealth, the very rich further solidified their influence on public policy. Left with a smaller share of the economic pie, average workers had fewer resources to improve their lives or contribute to the nation’s prosperity.
While Bush had wanted to be remembered as the education president, the September 11 attacks changed everything, and he will probably always be remembered as the president who led the nation into the War on Terror. Although the Iraq War proved to be difficult, Bush won reelection by defeating Senator John Kerry in 2004. Victory at the polls did not translate into lasting popularity however. The nation’s economic division grew, as did other tensions.
One event highlighted the nation’s economic inequality and racial divisions, as well as the Bush Administration’s difficulty in addressing them effectively. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina came ashore and devastated coastal stretches of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The city of New Orleans, no stranger to hurricanes and floods, suffered heavy damage when the levees designed to protect against flooding failed during the storm surge, as the Army Corps of Engineers had warned they might. The flooding killed more than 1,500 people and so overwhelmed parts of the city that tens of thousands more were trapped and unable to evacuate. Thousands who were elderly, ill, or too poor to own a car followed the mayor’s directions and sought refuge at the Superdome, which lacked adequate food, water, and sanitation. Public services collapsed under the weight of the crisis.
Although the Coast Guard managed to rescue more than 35,000 people from the stricken city, the response by other federal agencies was less effective. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is charged with assisting state and local governments in times of natural disaster, proved inept at coordinating the rescue and relief effort. Critics argued that FEMA was to blame and that its director, Michael D. Brown, a Bush friend and appointee with no background in emergency management, was an example of cronyism at its worst. The failures of FEMA were particularly harmful for an administration that had made homeland security its top priority.
While there was plenty of blame to go around, FEMA and the Bush Administration got the lion’s share. Even when the president attempted to demonstrate his concern with a personal appearance, the tactic largely backfired. Photographs of him looking down on the flooded city from the comfort of Air Force One only reinforced the impression that the president was detached from the problems of everyday people. On the eve of the 2006 midterm elections, President Bush’s popularity had reached a new low, as a result of the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, and a growing number of Americans who felt that his party’s economic policy benefitted the wealthy first and foremost.
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In order to avoid interrupting the relief efforts on the ground, President George W. Bush chose to observe the devastation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina from Air Force One. Photos of him looking out of the plane’s windows backfired and gave people the impression that their president was disconnected from their problems and did not care about their suffering.
THE GREAT RECESSION
Normally when someone wants to buy a house or condominium, the prospective home buyer goes to a local bank for a mortgage loan. Because the bank expects to make a profit in the form of interest charged on the loan, it carefully vets buyers for their ability to repay. Deregulation of the banking industry in the 1990s and early 2000s, however, allowed lending institutions to securitize their mortgage loans and sell them as bonds. In other words, the home buyer made a promise to pay back their loan to the bank, but that bank put hundreds of these promises together and sold that as one unit to a larger bank. These collections of mortgages were called mortgage backed securities. Big Wall Street banks wanted them because they promised big rewards. Also, with more money in their pockets because of the Bush tax cuts, more people wanted to invest and the mortgage backed securities seemed like a sure payoff.
However, there was a terrible dark side. Banks started to make bad loans because they could sell them quickly and not suffer financial consequences if borrowers failed to repay in the long term. The large banks that were putting the securities together were pushing up demand for mortgages in general, so local banks started ignoring caution and encouraged people to take out loans for large houses that they would never be able to repay. These subprime mortgages were sure to fail eventually.
Once they had purchased the loans, larger investment banks bundled them into huge packages known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and sold them to investors around the world. Even though CDOs consisted of subprime mortgages, credit card debt, and other risky investments, credit ratings agencies had a financial incentive to rate them as very safe. Normally a credit rating agency gave an honest score to an investment, telling prospective buyers about the potential risk involved in purchasing it. However, giving the CDOs low scores would mean losing business with the investment banks who were paying the rating agencies. Eventually, every CDO was rated A+ even though the subprime mortgages and credit card debt deep down at their core was unlikely to be paid back and anyone who bought them would surely lose their money in the end.
Making matters worse, financial institutions created credit default swaps, which were essentially a form of insurance on investments. The large investment banks bought insurance from one another thinking they would never have to use it. Each month, each bank paid a little to the other banks for a guarantee that they would bail them out if their investments failed. Eventually, all the large banks on Wall Street were so closely tied together that if one of them faltered, all of them would suffer. Instead of supporting the system, credit default swaps made the financial system far more susceptible to a sudden crash.
When the real estate market stalled after reaching a peak in 2007, the house of cards built by the country’s financial institutions came tumbling down. People began to default on their loans. When they could not afford their housing payments they wanted to sell their oversized and overpriced homes. But there were no longer people who wanted to buy, and banks had stopped giving away easy loans. Many people found themselves underwater: unable to pay their mortgages and owning more on their homes than they could get if they sold them.
More than one hundred mortgage lenders went out of business. American International Group (AIG), a multinational insurance company that had insured many of the investments, faced collapse. Other large financial institutions found themselves in danger as they either were besieged by demands for payment or found that the companies they had bought credit default swaps from could not pay them. The prestigious investment firm Lehman Brothers was completely wiped out and closed its doors in September 2008, shocking the business and political world. Some endangered companies, like Wall Street giant Merrill Lynch, sold themselves to more stable financial institutions to survive.
Members of Congress met with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson to find a way to head off the crisis. They agreed to use $700 billion in federal tax money to bail out the troubled institutions and Congress subsequently passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, creating the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Companies that were in trouble could apply for TARP money in order to stay open, but would have to pay it back over time once the crisis had passed.
The actions of the Federal Reserve, Congress, and presidents Bush and Obama prevented the complete disintegration of the nation’s financial sector and prevented a repeat of the Great Depression.
However, the bailouts could not prevent a tremendous decline in the world economy that has come to be known as the Great Recession. As people lost faith in the economy, stock prices fell by 45%. Unable to receive credit from banks that were suddenly more careful about who they loaned money to, smaller businesses found that they could not pay suppliers or employees and many people lost their jobs. With growing economic uncertainty, people stopped buying new homes. As the value of homes decreased, owners were unable to borrow against them to pay off other obligations such as credit card debt or car loans. More importantly, millions of homeowners who had expected to sell their houses at a profit and pay off their mortgages were forced to make mortgage payments they could no longer afford. The value of houses was falling so even if they sold their houses, they would not make back the money they spent to buy them. Without access to credit, consumer spending declined as well.
As the Great Recession deepened, the situation of ordinary citizens became worse. During the last four months of 2008, one million American workers lost their jobs, and during 2009, another three million found themselves out of work. Under such circumstances, many resented the expensive federal bailout of banks and investment firms. It seemed as if the wealthy people who had caused the problem in the first place were being rescued with taxpayer money from the consequences of their imprudent and even corrupt practices. Meanwhile, everyday Americans were suffering. The feelings of betrayal led to both protests against the rich and against the government that saved them.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
This artist is poking fun at the bailout programs implemented to save the financial system after the financial crash in 2007. President Obama is seen coming to take more tax money to give away to financial institutions that had cause the Great Recession.
Born in Hawaii in 1961 to a Kenyan father and an American woman from Kansas, Barack Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change in 2008. With George W. Bush facing economic crisis, an ongoing war in Iraq, and the failed response to Hurricane Katrina, Americans wanted a change, and Obama’s youth and excitement was just what they were looking for. As he entered office in 2009, Obama set out to deal with the Great Recession and to reform healthcare, a decades-old dream of the Democratic Party.
Taking charge of the TARP program instituted under George W. Bush to stabilize the country’s financial institutions, Obama oversaw the distribution of some $7.8 trillion designed to help shore up the nation’s banking system. Recognizing that the economic downturn also threatened major auto manufacturers in the United States, he sought and received congressional authorization for $80 billion to help Chrysler and General Motors. The action was controversial, and some characterized it as a government takeover of industry. The money did, however, help the automakers survive the recession. It also helped prevent layoffs and wage cuts. By 2013, the automakers had repaid over $50 billion of bailout funds. Finally, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as The Stimulus. This set of programs pumped almost $800 billion of taxpayer money into the economy to stimulate economic growth and job creation. The Stimulus worked like the New Deal had during the Great Depression. Priming the pump, Obama believed, would pay off in the end as people found jobs and started paying taxes again.
GROWING POLITICAL DIVISION
More important for Obama supporters than his attempts to restore the economy was that he fulfill his promise to enact comprehensive healthcare reform. Learning from Clinton’s mistakes years before, the Democrats in 2009 worked with the insurance companies and doctors to draft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The act, which has come to be known as Obamacare, represented the first significant overhaul of the American healthcare system since the passage of Medicaid in 1965. Its goals were to provide all Americans with access to affordable health. Normally young and healthy people who did not think they needed insurance did not pay for it. The people who paid for insurance usually needed more medical care. The law required all Americans to pay for insurance. This new system would work, Obama argued, because if everyone paid for insurance the costs would go down as insurance companies could use the money paid by healthy people to cover the medical costs of those Americans who needed care. Democrats believed this system would also make one law’s most popular provisions possible: an end to insurance companies’ ability to deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions. No longer could a health insurance company refuse to sell coverage to someone if they already knew about a person’s health problems.
Although the plan implemented the market-based reforms that they had supported for years, Republicans refused to vote for it. Following its passage, they called numerous times for its repeal, and more than twenty-four states sued the federal government to stop its implementation. Discontent over the Affordable Care Act helped the Republicans capture the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. Since then Republicans eliminated the unpopular mandate that all Americans purchase insurance, but kept the popular rule that insurance companies can not deny coverage for preexisting conditions.
As mentioned earlier, the Great Recession, the government bailout of the banks and auto industry, Obama’s stimulus, and Obamacare produced waves of backlash from voters.
Those who felt like the economy was rigged by the wealthy to help themselves saw the government bailout of banks and the enormous money top executives were making as evidence of a corrupt system at the highest levels. Tone deaf business leaders made things worse for themselves. For example, when the Big Three auto executives first went to Washington to ask Congress to give them taxpayer money to save their companies, they arrived on private jets. After years of growing disparity between the very rich and the rest of Americans, it felt like they government had taken the side of the 1% of people who controlled most of the nation’s wealth. Protesters gathered in New York and formed the Occupy Wall Street Movement. They uses the slogan “We are the 99%” and the #Occupy hashtag. Supporting protests sprang up in hundreds of other American cities and similar protests erupted around the world.
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A Tea Party protest rally. Events such as this were organized by voters who wanted to show their discontent with Obamacare and the economic recovery programs such as TARP and the Stimulus.
Other Americans saw things differently. They were angry at their government for taking their money in taxes. They concentrated their ire on politicians rather than business leaders. They borrowed a name for America’s revolutionary past and formed the Tea Party. Not a political party exactly, the supporters of the Tea Party carried signs that read “Taxed Enough Already” and were especially angry that Obamacare used tax money to expand Medicaid. They helped elect a wave of anti-tax Republicans to Congress in 2010.
Whenever we have divided government with one party in control in Congress and a different party holding the White House, it is hard to get things done. However, throughout our nation’s history there have been cases when leaders from different parties have found ways to work together. This has not been the case in the 2000s.
As Obama entered his second term in office, the country faced a wide variety for problems. The economy remained stagnant. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were ongoing, and another act of terrorism took place on American soil when bombs exploded at the 2013 Boston Marathon. President Obama was unable to get Republicans in Congress to support his proposals about immigration and the environment, so he used executive orders. He simply told federal agencies to enforce laws or change rules about how laws should be implemented.
In an effort to get their way and to undo Obamacare, Congressional Republicans, led by newly elected Tea Party champion Senator Ted Cruz, refused to allocate money for government operations. Without a law authorizing payments, the government shut down. National parks closed. People could no longer apply for Medicare or unemployment benefits since no one was there to take their applications. Some services remained open such as the military, TSA and air traffic controllers, but as the shutdown dragged on, even these workers started looking for other work. After all, even though they were deemed essential and told to come to work, there was no money to pay them. After 16 days Republicans relented and passed the appropriations bills needed to reopen the government. Americans mostly blamed Congress for the shutdown, but the experience drove Republicans and Democrats further apart, and made the parties’ supporters around the country even more convinced that the other side was ruining the nation.
With Congress no closer to agreeing with him than ever, Obama issued some of his most famous and controversial executive orders. First was the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program. Normally, people who come to the United States illegally are considered criminals for having broken immigration law and are subject to deportation. However, many young Americas are brought over the border as children by their parents. This group of people are known as Dreamers, and many Americans believe they should be exempt from deportation and should have a chance to become citizens in the only country they can remember. When Obama realized that the DREAM Act that would protect them would not pass the Republican-controlled Congress, he simply ordered the immigration officers to stop deporting them.
He went a step further and decided that illegal immigrants who had not committed crimes (other than coming to America illegally) would have the lowest priority for law enforcement. Essentially, Obama promised that police and immigration officers would ignore law-abiding illegal immigrants in order to focus on stopping other crimes. His stance was that as the top law enforcement officer in the country, he had prosecutorial discretion on how to best use America’s law enforcement officers. If, he claimed, Republicans in Congress were so intent on lowering taxes and saving money that they refused to raise taxes to fund the government, he would use what little money he had to go after serious criminals. For conservatives it was too much. Obama, they believed, was simply refusing to enforce the laws Congress had passed.
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President Trump is seen here in a campaign rally during his presidency. Some of the signs mention coal, which is an industry the president promised to protest.
Donald Trump, a New York real estate investor and television celebrity won the presidency in 2016 by capitalizing on many of the political currents at work in the past few decades. Those who were alarmed by the nation’s growing Hispanic population and Obama’s DACA Program and prosecutorial discretion loved Trump’s promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico. People in the Rust Belt states of the Midwest who had been the losers of globalization loved his promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. They also liked his promise to tear up NAFTA and negotiate better trade deals. Coal miners and people in states that relied on the oil industry liked his promise to ignore global warming and reduce regulation on greenhouse gasses. Tea Party supporters liked his talk of reducing taxes and repealing Obamacare. Just about any Republican conspiracy theorist who hated President Obama loved Trump for inventing birtherism, the lie that Obama had been born in Kenya instead of Hawaii. Those who had grown tired of the War on Terror liked Trump’s promise to ban all Muslim immigrants and put “America first.” Trump ran against Hillary Clinton and nicknamed her “Crooked Hillary,” successfully reminded voters of Bill and Hillary’s many scandals. Additionally, American men who felt uneasy about having a women president and about feminism in general, favored Trump. Despite having been married three times and not having any record of religious conviction, he won over conservative Christians by publishing a list of right-wing judges he would nominate to the Supreme Court who might overturn Roe v. Wade and end abortion.
In the end, he won the presidency by winning just the right combination of states, especially the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by winning overwhelming majorities in New York, California and other blue states, Trump’s narrow victories in the Midwest gave him the White House. For the fifth time in American history the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidency.
Donald Trump had a turbulent presidency. He was only partially successful in delivering on many of his campaign promises. Like previous Republican presidents, he was able to deliver tax cuts. He implemented a ban on immigration from some majority-Muslim countries. He mostly stayed out of foreign conflicts, including the ongoing civil war in Syria. He cancelled Obama’s deal with Iran that reduced sanctions in exchange for a freeze on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiated NAFTA. He eliminated many of Obama’s environmental regulations. He appointed three conservative justices to the Supreme Court. However, he had a difficult time filling government jobs with experienced candidates and his administration was plagued with inefficiencies and many of his initiatives were poorly implemented or easily challenged by Democrats in court for violating basic government procedures.
One of Trump’s most important campaign promises was to build a wall along the southern border with Mexico and to make Mexico pay for it. In this case he largely was unsuccessful. The longest government shutdown in the nations’ history when Trump refused to extend government funding unless Congress allocated funds for his promised border wall. About half of Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown, and Trump’s approval ratings dropped. Trump agreed to reopen the government without getting funding for the wall. Instead, he shifted money that Congress had allocated for the military to construction of the wall arguing that it was essential for national security. In total, 49 miles of new wall were built during his four years as president.
President Trump was successful in reducing overall immigration, not because of better security but by making the United States seem less welcoming. The primary strategy was family separation. Under this policy, children and parents were separated when caught crossing the border illegally. This policy was criticized by many Americans, both liberal and conservative as inhumane. Visitors to detention centers along the border were angered to see children be keep in buildings where they were held in chain link fence enclosures. Stories of children being locked in “cages” reduced support for the president’s immigration strategy. Furthermore, family separation was challenged in court. In 2018, a federal judge concluded that the Trump administration had “no system in place to keep track of” the separated children, ordered for the families to be reunited, and family separations stopped. Despite the federal court order, the Trump administration continued to practice family separations, with more than a thousand migrant children separated.
Primary Source: Photograph
A detention center for minors along the border with Mexico. Facilities like this one led many Americans to accuse the Trump Administration of inhumanely holding children in “cages.”
In response to Trump’s widely reported sexism and multiple sexual abuse allegations, as well Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat, American women have become more politically active than ever before and more willing to step up and take charge of their future. One area is in politics. For example, the 2018 congressional elections saw the highest number of female candidates ever. However, the thing that may have the greatest impact in American life is that women have decided to step up and address sexism and sexual abuse. After brave women came out in 2017 to expose Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse, the hashtag #MeToo was popularized as a way of sharing stories and encouraging other women to stand up against abusers. Superstars Alyssa Milano, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, and Uma Thurman have all told their stories using #MeToo. In addition to Weinstein, comedian Bill Cosby and Senator Al Franken, Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, and musician R. Kelly have all been exposed as abusers. Many more are sure to follow as more women decide to confront men who have abused them.
As a candidate, Trump had promised to “drain the swamp.” His efforts to remake the style of government and reduce the influence of business was mixed. In the end, little changed in the way government worked. However, his use of Twitter to communicate directly to the people, his willingness to exaggerate and lie and his refusal to use politically correct language or follow many of the traditions of the presidency made his time in the White House feel different from the past.
President Trump was hounded by Democratic in Congress and political opponents in courts throughout his term. He was criticized for what many felt was not a clear enough separation between his public policies and his personal business dealings. He brought his daughter and son-in-law into the White House as close advisors and was criticized for perceived nepotism.
Donald Trump became a one-term president when he lost his bid for reelection to Joe Biden in 2020. Perhaps the most important factor in his loss was his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Caused by a virus that led to a disease scientists call COVID-19, the pandemic began in China in late 2019 and by 2020 had swept around the world. Primarily an airborne virus like the flu, but much more deadly and easily spread, COVID-10 is especially dangerous for the elderly and people with other medical problems. Spread of the virus can be limited through social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing. However, responses to the growing pandemic in the United States often had more to do with political outlook than common sense. In liberal states like New York or California, shutdowns and mask wearing were common. In conservative states, governors were more hesitant to implement mandates that scientists recommended. Individual Americans responded differently also. Posts on social media by liberals celebrated mask wearing as a sacrifice they were making for the benefit of others. On the other hand, many conservatives chaffed at what they viewed as elites in government and the scientific community infringing on their personal liberty by telling them what to wear, where to go, or how to run their businesses. President Trump himself downplayed the danger of the virus early in the pandemic. He refused to wear a mask and ended up contracting the virus himself, needing hospitalization. As infections skyrocketed in the fall, Americans blamed him for failing to provide effective leadership through the crisis and denied him a second term.
Also important to voters were accusations that the president had abused his power. In in end, Trump became the first president ever to be impeached twice. The first time was in 2019 when Democrats in the House of Represented accused him of abuse of power and obstruction of justice related to his dealings with the president of the nation of Ukraine. In a recorded phone conversation, Trump had urged him to investigate the son of Joe Biden, the former vice president who Trump believed would run against him in the upcoming election. Furthermore, he had refused to send money to Ukraine that Congress had allocated to help the Ukrainian government defend against Russian aggression. Many people felt that the president essentially blackmailed a foreign nation to interfere in an American election. Democrats in the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president, but Republicans in Senate held together and voted 52-48 to acquit.
The second impeachment came in 2021 as Trump was leaving office. After losing his bid for reelection to Joe Biden, Trump told his supporters that the election had been stolen and refused to concede defeat. A variety of efforts to undermine confidence in the outcome, including lawsuits, threats against election officials, and accusations fueled the lie. When it came time for Congress to certify the vote of the Electoral College on January 6, 2021, an event that normally is hardly noticed because it is a formality, Trump held a rally outside the White House encouraging his supporters to march to the Capitol. Many of them did where they violently stormed and breached the Capitol Building, eventually entering the Senate and House chambers as well as numerous offices. The Congressional proceedings were suspended as legislators were taken to secure locations. Both Capitol police officers and protesters died during the melee. When security was finally restored, Congress reconvened and in the early hours of the following morning finished certifying the election of President Biden. Outraged, Democrats in the House charged Trump with inciting an insurrection against the United States for encouraging his supporters to try to stop Congress from doing its job.
Primary Source: Photograph
Trump supporters breaking into the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in a failed attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. The attack led to multiple deaths, hundreds of arrests, and the second impeachment of President Trump.
This time the Senate did not have the option of removing the President from power because Joe Biden took the oath of office and became president before they had a chance to hold the trial, but they still had the option of finding Trump guilty and preventing him from running for office again in the future. In this second impeachment, more Republicans turned against their former president and voted against him, but because conviction requires a 2/3 majority, there were still enough Republicans to protect him, and impeachment failed.
Trump continues to have a strong grip on both Republican voters and politicians. In in poll in March of 2021, 66% of Republicans responded that they believed the “election was stolen from President Trump” despite there being no evidence to support this lie. In May, Liz Cheney, the daughter of a former vice president lost her leadership position in the House of Representatives when her fellow Republicans voted her out for publicly challenging Trump’s lie.
By any objective measure, our political system is not functioning well. Our two parties rarely agree. Social media and cable news fan the flames. Voters have grown more tribal, rallying around flawed leaders rather than considering voting for someone from the other side. Those who read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies would find parallels in modern American politics. Our leaders encourage us to think that the other side is criminal, hates America and is out to ruin the nation.
But having said that, it is worth noting that our elections have always been held on time, even during wars and pandemics. Twice in the past 20 years the majority of voters did not get their way but respected the institutions of government anyway and power was transferred peacefully. Even when a losing president tried to convince Americans that he had really won, the courts and election officials around the nation upheld the integrity of the vote.
Perhaps, the framers of our government had more foresight than we give them credit for. 219 years before Twitter they wrote a Constitution that has endured civil war, imperialism, global conflict, civil rights unrest, scandal, depression, recession, and lies. Maybe our system is not as damaged as it feels.
What do you think? Is our political system broken?
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- Next: Conclusion
BIG IDEA: Politics in America has always been contentious and there have never been some “good old days” when everyone got along and debated respectfully. However, in the past 30 years the Great Recession, taxes, government spending, racial justice issues, immigration, mass media, the rise of social media, and the personal failings of politicians have all contributed to a shift toward more extreme division.
George H. W. Bush was the last president from his generation. He lost his bid for reelection in 1992 to Bill Clinton. Clinton was the first Baby Boomer president and was famous for his engaging personality and also for scandal. Clinton described himself as a New Democrat and embraced some conservative ideas. This helped him win in a time when conservative ideas were more popular.
Clinton signed NAFTA but failed to reform healthcare. In 1994 Republicans took back control of Congress for the first time in decades and a period of confrontation between Congress and the President ensued. Clinton’s scandals hurt him in his second term. Investigations of his business deals morphed into an investigation of an affair he had while he was president. He was impeached by the House but not convicted in the Senate. In the end, however, his political talents and a robust economy saved him, and he was the most popular outgoing president ever.
The 2000 presidential election was very close. It all came down to Florida where Al Gore asked for a recount. The procedures ended up being debated in the courts and in the case of Bush v. Gore the Supreme Court handed the election to George W. Bush. It was a rare case when the winner of the popular vote did not become president.
Bush implemented tax cuts for all Americans, especially the wealthy in keeping with traditional Republican ideas about how to support the economy. During his presidency there was a growing divide between the very rich and most other Americans. He also signed the NCLB education law. Later he concentrated on the War on Terror. The War in Iraq and the government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina ruined his popularity during his second term.
Deregulation and speculation led to problems in the financial markets. A real estate bubble grew during Bush’s tenure that included the creation of mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps. In 2007 everything came crashing down and the Great Recession started. Bush and Obama responded by bailing out banks and the auto industry. Later, Obama passed a stimulus bill to pump tax money into the economy.
President Obama and Democrats passed healthcare reform in 2009. The government’s response to the Great Recession and Obamacare were unpopular with voters on both the right and the left. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party grew as a result. Republicans in Congress formed fierce opposition to Obama. He responded by using executive orders to make significant changes to environmental and immigration policy.
Beginning in the 1990s the United States has grown increasingly politically polarized. Republicans and Democrats work together less, are more divided geographically, are less likely to vote for someone from the other party or even to have friends from the other party. Extreme partisanship is fueled by media outlets and amplified by social media where algorithms are designed to help you find like-minded people, thus isolating people from dissenting opinions. More and more voters are likely to describe the other party as hating America and trying to ruin the country.
Donald Trump won in 2016 by capitalizing on various political trends, such as anti-globalization, anti-environmentalism, fatigue of wars, Clinton scandals, and anti-feminism. President Trump broke with tradition in many ways, which was part of why his supporters liked him. Although most presidents stretch the truth, Trump told an unprecedented number of lies during his four years in office. His willingness to lie and attacks on his political opponents led to him being impeached twice, once for asking the President of Ukraine to help him find information that would hurt then-candidate Biden and a second time for encouraging his supporters to attack the Capitol Building.
Over the past few decades an intense political debate has emerged around questions related to immigration. As a result of immigration reform in the 1960s, large numbers of immigrants have arrived from Asia and Latin America. Some believe it is time to start to reduce the number of arrivals. Others view these new residents as a benefit to America. Since most non-White Americans vote Democratic, the debate over immigration has become intensely politicized. Fights over the fate of children brought to the country illegally and criticism of President Trump’s proposed border wall and ban on Muslim immigrants made immigration a major political issue in the 2010s.
In response to Trump’s accusations of sexual abuse, the #MeToo movement rose to expose abusers and assert women’s power in American politics.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Bill Clinton: Former governor of Arkansas who won the presidency in 1992 as a Democrat and served eight years. His second term was rocked by scandal and impeachment.
New Democrats: Democrats in the early 1990s who found ways to be elected after the Conservative Revolution by promoting free trade and welfare reform. Bill Clinton used this term to describe himself.
Hillary Clinton: First lady to Bill Clinton. She led a task force during his presidency to prepare for healthcare reform. Later she served as senator from New York, Secretary of State, and ran for president.
Newt Gingrich: Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives who proposed the Contract with America in 1994, lead the Republican Revolution, and was Bill Clinton’s leading political opponent.
Kenneth Starr: Independent prosecutor appointed to investigate Bill Clinton’s wrongdoing. He investigated both the Whitewater real estate deal and Clinton’s affair with Monika Lewinsky.
Monica Lewinsky: White House intern who had an affair with President Bill Clinton.
George W. Bush: Republican president elected in 2000 and reelected in 2004. He is remembered mostly for prosecuting the War on Terror, but also instituted education reforms and oversaw the beginning of the Great Recession.
Ted Cruz: Republican senator from Texas who has strong backing from the Tea Party movement and promoted a government shutdown during Obama’s presidency. He ran unsuccessfully for president in the Republican primary election in 2016.
Dreamers: Nickname for illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
Donald Trump: New York real estate investor and television celebrity won the presidency in 2016 as a Republican.
Perjury: Lying under oath. It is a crime.
Impeachment: The Constitutional process of removing an elected official or judge. In the case of a president, the House of Representatives serves as the prosecutors and the Senate as the jury.
Charter Schools: Independently run schools that operate with public funding. They are seen by many as opportunities for educators to innovate and provide options for families who live in neighborhoods with failing schools.
School Vouchers: A system in which parents can receive public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. Proponents believe it gives parents choice and students a chance at a better education. Opponents believe it robs public schools of needed funding.
Preexisting Conditions: Medical problems that a patient has before applying for health insurance. Before the passage of Obamacare, insurers could deny coverage because they knew patients would need medical care.
The 99%: Nickname coined by the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 to describe everyday Americans in contrast to the superrich who they believed controlled business and political decisions.
Prosecutorial Discretion: The idea that the president as chief law enforcement officer can choose which type of crimes to focus resource on. President Obama used this concept to announce that illegal immigrants who had not broken laws would not be subject to deportation.
“Read my lips: no new taxes”: Campaign promise by George H. W. Bush in 1988 that cost him support when he had to break it later as president.
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”: Famous quote by President Bill Clinton when he denied his affair with Monica Lewinsky on television.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): Government agency under the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for coordinating rescue and relief operations after disasters or terrorist attacks. Their response to Hurricane Katrina was widely criticized.
Mortgage Backed Securities: Investments that were made up of a collection of home loans bundled together and sold as a single unit.
Subprime Mortgage: A home loan made to a lender that was unlikely to be able to repay it. They were sold in large numbers in the early 2000s in order to make mortgage backed securities and when they failed it caused the Great Recession.
Credit Rating Agency: A company that gives a score to investment opportunities to rank them in terms of their risk. They are important in order to help investors manage risk.
Credit Default Swap: Insurance investment banks took out on their investments with other large banks. Because all the large banks had these with all the other large banks in the early 2000s, the Great Recession had a domino effect within the financial markets.
Bush v. Gore: 2000 Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled to end a recount of votes in Florida, thus handing the presidential election victory to George W. Bush. It marked an important turning point in the politicization of the Supreme Court.
Republican Revolution: Nickname for the electoral gains made by congressional Republicans in 1994. For the first time in decades Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.
Hurricane Katrina: Major natural disaster in 2005. The federal government’s response was widely criticized which hurt President George W. Bush’s popularity.
Real Estate Market Crash: 2007 economic disaster in which investors and home buyers finally realized that housing prices were inflated and stopped buying. People were left with mortgages they couldn’t pay and homes they couldn’t sell.
Great Recession: Economic crash starting in 2007 caused by speculation in the housing market and lax oversight of the financial markets. It was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and caused unemployment to peak at 10%.
Occupy Wall Street: Protest movement in 2011 focused on real and perceived inequality in the economy, especially on the influence of the wealthy in government and the growing wealth divide between the superrich and everyday Americans. They coined the phrase “We are the 99%.”
Tea Party: Political protest movement within the Republican Party in 2009 that formed in reaction to passage of Obamacare. They focused on lowering taxes and reducing government spending. Members of Congress with backing of these voters usually used extreme tactics including shutting down the government to try to achieve their goals.
MeToo: Movement to expose perpetrators of sexual abuse. It was started in 2017 by women in the entertainment industry who using social media to tell their stories.
Coronavirus Pandemic: Global outbreak during 2020 and 2021 that killed more than 500,000 people in the United States.
First Impeachment of Donald Trump: First attempt by Democrats to remove President Trump from office. It was a response to his effort to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son.
The Big Lie: Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat in the 2020 election and effort to convince Americans, without evidence, that the election was somehow stolen from him.
2021 Storming of the Capitol: Attack by supporters of President Trump on the Capitol Building in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying the results of his electoral loss to Joe Biden. It led to Trump’s second impeachment.
Second Impeachment of Donald Trump: Attempt by Democrats to hold President Trump accountable for his role in the 2021 Storming of the Capitol.
LAWS, POLICIES & PROGRAMS
Contract with America: Set of eight proposals set out by Republicans in 1994 which helped propel them to retake the House of Representatives.
Welfare Reform: Efforts in the 1990s to change welfare laws by including a requirement that people receiving welfare begin working within two years.
Bush Tax Cuts: Reductions in taxes for all Americans, but especially for the wealthy, implemented by George W. Bush in 2001.
No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB): Education reform law passed by George W. Bush in 2002 which introduced a system of high-stakes testing and the possibility of restructuring for low performing schools.
Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP): Government program designed to save banks during the Great Recession. The government loaned banks enormous sums of money in order to help them survive as they dealt with all of the failed investments they had purchased during the housing boom.
The Stimulus: Economic program signed by Barack Obama to help boost the economy during the Great Recession. It included investing $800 billion in infrastructure and green technologies.
Obamacare: Nickname for the Affordable Care Act passed in 2009 by Democrats in Congress and Barack Obama. In included guarantees of coverage for patients with preexisting conditions, and expansion of Medicaid and a mandate that everyone purchase healthcare coverage.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): Government program that provides amnesty for illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
DREAM Act: Proposed law to allow illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children a chance to become legal residents and eventually become citizens. It has not passed Congress due to opposition from Republicans.
Border Wall: A barrier along the southern border with Mexico. Expanding the wall was one of President Trump’s key campaign promises and an ongoing political issue during his presidency.
Family Separation: The policy of separating parents and children of illegal immigrants in an effort to discourage immigration.