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The Top Moments From A Decade That Reshaped American Politics

President Barack Obama celebrates with lawmakers after signing into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act health insurance bill in March 2010.
Jewel Samad
AFP via Getty Images
President Barack Obama celebrates with lawmakers after signing into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act health insurance bill in March 2010.

Whether you think the new decade starts at midnight Tuesday or a year from then, the eve of 2020 seems like a good time to look back on the top political stories of the 2010s.

It was a tumultuous decade in politics that saw everything from the presidency and reelection of the first black president to the rise of the Tea Party and the improbable election of Donald Trump as president. The 2010s were marred by political polarization and gridlock, as American society struggled to deal with changing demography and a white grievance backlash.

Here are some of the top moments of the decade that helped reshape American politics.

Obamacare signed into law

The Affordable Care Act was signed into law in March 2010after passing the Senate on Christmas Eve of 2009. No single piece of legislation would come to define the decade more than Obamacare.

Obama's signature legislation brought down the number of uninsured in the country dramatically. It also led to the rise of the Tea Party and sweeping Democratic officeholder losses across the country. Despite dozens of GOP attempts to repeal it, the health care law remains a permanent fixture in American society.

It's notable how the politics, especially of Democrats, have changed on the law since the ACA was passed. Progressives back then were pushing Obama for a "public option," but tactically Democratic leadership didn't think it could pass. Today, as is being fought out on the 2020 campaign trail, many progressives now see even a public option as not going far enough.

The rise of the Tea Party

The Republican Party was reshaped by the rise of the Tea Party. The GOP rode the 2010 Tea Party wave to take over the House, but governing proved difficult. Legislative priorities were unclear, as Tea Party conservatives cared most about cutting and restraining spending — not compromise.

That lack of compromise fueled government shutdowns and a debt-ceiling standoff that led to the first-ever U.S. credit downgrade. The Tea Party phenomenon also eventually ran a speaker out of Congress. John Boehner's hands were tied by his right flank of hardliners, who would not let him negotiate to the point he might have with President Obama.

Boehner, in fact, notably said he would not use the word compromise. "I reject that word," Boehner said in 2010. He tried to thread the needle with the phrase "common ground" instead, but to no avail.

A direct through-line can be drawn from the Tea Party to President Trump. Many people in Tea Party crowds espoused conspiracy theories about Obama, including the false and racist birther narrative. Trump was a leader of the birther movement, and with him in the White House, conservative base supporters who were integral to the Tea Party's success don't seem to care as much about deficits that have only grown.

The Tea Party may have also been a leading indicator of what's happening within the Democratic Party. Obama led to the Tea Party, which led to Trump, who is leading to progressives rejecting the idea of compromise being a smart thing to do. And that's also playing out in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Americans like the idea of compromise; they just want the other side to do it.

The killing of Osama bin Laden

If the struggling economy after the Great Recession, the Tea Party and record GOP opposition had Obama in a defensive crouch, he rose out of that with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

It's easy to overlook that moment now, but realize that the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had escaped the reach of the most powerful military in the world and its allies for almost 10 years. He was like a ghost who haunted the American psyche. His killing also helped reinforce a president, who was branded as weak by opponents, a year before his reelection.

Obama's reelection

This is another event that's easy to overlook. But it was important for the legitimacy of the first black president. Imagine if he'd not been reelected. Republicans would have been able to reduce him to the way they talk about Jimmy Carter.

What's more, presidents aren't seen as great if they stand for and lose reelection. None of the top 18 presidents, according to a 2019 survey of historians, lost reelection. And each of the top 13, except for John F. Kennedy, served for more than four years (Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson assumed office before winning election on their own.)

Obama, by the way, stands at No. 12 on the list.

The recovery after the Great Recession

Part of the reason why Obama ranks on that "great presidents" list is because of his handling of the Great Recession, the worst recession since the Great Depression. Starting in December 2007, it saw pillars of finance collapse, mass layoffs and people kicked out of their homes after the housing and foreclosure crises. Auto bailouts, begun under President George W. Bush, and the recovery act were the first items on the list when Obama took office.

"Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive!" then-Vice President Joe Biden thunderedat the 2012 Democratic National Convention, repeating what had become a mantra en route to Obama's reelection.

Trump has been campaigning on the continuing strong economy and will certainly try to ride it to reelection. He gets his best ratings from Americans on his handling of the economy. But more than a political story, imagine what American society and the world would have been like if the U.S. didn't recover.

Americans were projected to spend some $728 billion this holiday season, so it's easy now to look past how consequential the 2010s were to the economic stability of the country — and the world.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre

Twenty children were killed, the president cried in the White House briefing room talking about it, and, yet, the gun lobby was so strong that Congress was not able to pass any legislation — even universal background checks, which are very popular with Americans. Still, this mass shooting was a marker.

The lack of action reflected the strength of the National Rifle Association at the time, but hundreds more have been killed in similar events since, in places like Parkland, Fla.; Las Vegas; Dayton, Ohio; and El Paso, Texas. And while little has come out of Washington legislatively since Sandy Hook, various states have adopted restrictions. There has been lots of activism around guns. And better-funded gun-restrictions groups now exist — and have begun winning. All of that comes as the NRA faces its own internal turmoil and financial difficulties.

Ringing the alarms on climate change

A protester is seen during a climate change demonstration in Los Angeles on May 24.
Ronen Tivony / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
A protester is seen during a climate change demonstration in Los Angeles on May 24.

Major report after major reportrang the alarm bells in the 2010s on the threat of climate change. President Obama signed the Paris climate accord, only to have the U.S. pull out of it under President Trump.

But even the markers set in that agreement are not enough to stave off the most catastrophic possible outcomes for the planet, according to a 2018 United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, report.

There is a big generational divide on views of climate change. A Gallup polllast year found that 70% of people 18 to 34 worry a great deal or fair amount about climate change, while 56% of those 55 and older said they do.

For a younger generation, this is not an existential problem, it's an urgent one, and how that will shape politics as younger Americans gain power will be interesting to watch.

Same-sex marriage becomes legal

In the middle of the decade, in 2015, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Public opinion and politics moved sweepingly on same-sex marriage in the 2010s.

It wasn't that long ago that Democratic politicians, for example, tried to walk the line on same-sex marriage, calling for civil unions. That, in fact, was Obama's stance in 2008, not wanting to offend religious groups.

But he eventually lent his support to the cause of marriage equality in 2012 when Vice President Biden said the Obama administration was in favor of legalization of same-sex marriage.

To understand why Obama might have been reticent to support same-sex marriage, just 40% of the country was in favor of legalizing it in 2009 when he was sworn in, according to Gallup. By 2012, just about half of Americans were in favor. Now, it's 63%, though still only 44% of Republicans.

Marijuana becomes legal in states

Speaking of changing public opinion, the mainstreaming of marijuana has been a sea change. In 2012, pot became legal in Colorado and Washington state. Since then, nine more states and the District of Columbia have adopted expansive rules for recreational marijuana use. Marijuana for medical use is legal in almost two dozen other states.

Marijuana is still illegal by federal law. But two-thirds of Americans now are in favor of legalizing marijuana, up from just 44% a decade ago, according to Gallup. Even a majority of Republicans now agree it should be legalized.

The legalization movement and overall changing public opinion won't just have implications for those looking for a recreational high. It will also have potentially serious implications for those locked up in prisons because of nonviolent drug offenses as bipartisan attention is given to criminal justice reform.

Going "nuclear" on the filibuster and changing the balance of the Supreme Court

In response to Mitch McConnell's record use of the filibuster to block Obama judicial nominees, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid "went nuclear" and blew up the procedural tactic. It allowed Obama judicial nominees through with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes needed for cloture.

But McConnell pledged revenge when he was in the majority. That opportunity came after Republicans took over the Senate in 2014. He blocked Obama's Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia, not even allowing a hearing for the well-regarded judge Merrick Garland.

When Trump became president, McConnell then did away with the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, allowing Trump to slide through two nominees. That changed the high court to a majority conservative court for the first time in three-quarters of a century. That will likely have ramifications for social policy for a generation to come.

The #MeToo movement

Think of the legacies and views of men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Matt Lauer before the #MeToo movement. The movement has had sweeping effects, not just for powerful men across industries, but also in how companies deal with sexual harassment and misconduct.

It, of course, has touched politics, too, with differing ramifications. Congress changed its rulesto make members more accountable, and members of Congress have resigned — male and female.

But some Democrats are smarting over the standard they set for themselves. Kirsten Gillibrand suffered consequences in her presidential campaign partly because of her leading role in helping force former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign. And Biden, of course, has also faced allegations of inappropriate behavior.

Meanwhile, there have been almost two dozen women who accused Trump of sexual misconduct, yet he was still elected.

President Trump's election — and impeachment

Donald Trump rides an escalator to announce his candidacy for the U.S. presidency in June 2015.
Christopher Gregory / Getty Images
Getty Images
Donald Trump rides an escalator to announce his candidacy for the U.S. presidency in June 2015.

If the script was written this way, the movie might never have gotten made.

The most unlikely scenario played out in 2016, and Trump won the American presidency by running to represent the "forgotten man and woman." Even as his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes in that election, Trump fired up rural voters and voters without college degrees in the right places to win the Electoral College.

But Trump was eventually impeached, with Democrats in charge of the House, after his administration withheld aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine, while Trump sought the announcement of public investigations into conspiracy theories about the 2016 election and the Bidens.

But the Republican Party is now Trump's party, and, in the new year, he is set to be acquitted by the GOP-controlled Senate. And that will set the stage for what is likely to be a bitter and closely divided 2020 election.

What does the future hold?

America is the largest economy and military in the world, but some question U.S. moral values and leadership. Is America the globalist, interventionist country it was that helped maintain world order and security after World War II, or will it lurch further toward protectionism and nativism? What will America's role in the world be in the next 50 years?

And, most importantly, what does it mean — and what will it mean — to be American? That was clearer after World War II than it is today, as technological advances threaten to shift global power with a click or a swipe.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.