WASHINGTON — The world got a new pope. Gay marriage prevailed. The Arab Spring faded. Guns and terrorism brought more heartache.
It all happened in 2013, a year that featured big headlines and big issues that hit President Barack Obama from all sides.
At home, the president’s popularity fell to record lows, thanks to a failed launch of his health care plan and public disgust with the shutdown of the federal government.
Internationally, Obama didn’t fare much better: He vacillated on how to react to brutality in Syria and angered foreign leaders by eavesdropping on them.
Here’s a rundown of some key events from the year:
White smoke for Pope Francis
On Feb. 11, Pope Benedict XVI, then 85, told the Roman Catholic Church he was leaving because “my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” Later, he said the decision was the result of a “mystical experience” and that God had shown him the way.
It marked the first time a pope had stepped down from his post since Gregory XII in 1415.
Benedict’s historic announcement was quickly followed by another: the ascension of the first pope from Latin America, and the first to be known as Pope Francis. Many welcomed the 76-year-old former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as a breath of fresh air.
His style — an aversion to opulence, a devotion to the poor and a less authoritative approach — already has established him as a media darling, and led to suggestions that in less than a year he’d changed the face of the world’s largest Christian church.
Failed rollout for Obamacare
Health care exploded with the tortured rollout of the HealthCare.gov website. By the time the federal health insurance marketplace portal was working, public support for the Affordable Care Act had plummeted, along with Obama’s credibility.
The president’s repeated claims that “people who liked their current health coverage will be able to keep it” quickly became his “no new taxes” moment. Millions of policy cancellations later, he was forced to eat his words and offer a so-called “fix” to folks whose insurance was terminated because it didn’t meet the health law’s tough new standards.
In 2014, the Affordable Care Act will cast a large political shadow. Squeamish Democrats are fearful that the law will weigh against them in the midterm elections. Republicans are pouring millions of dollars into making sure that happens.
Many challenges remain, including getting young people to sign up for coverage, keeping premium costs down and the possibility of doctor shortages.
Chemical weapons in Syria
In the early hours of Aug. 21, a number of rockets with sarin gas warheads fell on the Damascus suburbs.
The immediate result was that hundreds of Syrians died in the first confirmed chemical-weapons attack of the civil war, which began in 2011. The longer-term result was that the attack got the United States and Russia to meet in Geneva and agree on exactly how completely and swiftly the Syrian government would have to get rid of its chemical weapons.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had inspectors back in Syria by October and by November had destroyed much of the nation’s ability to use chemical weapons. Syria’s entire chemical arsenal is slated for destruction by June 30, 2014.
But the agreement did little to stop, or even slow, a bloody civil war fought primarily with conventional weapons, and which has now claimed more than 100,000 lives.
A 16-day partial shutdown for the U.S. government
Fiscal cliffs, shutdown showdowns and debt ceiling debates produced ominous countdown clocks on cable news networks but yielded very few lasting results.
In the end, the battles over budgets and deficit reduction consumed the political oxygen and kept lawmakers from dealing with key issues. They left town in December without passing a farm bill, revamping immigration and gun control laws or offering any long-term solutions on tax and entitlement issues.
The White House and Congress ushered in 2013 the same way they ended 2012: bickering over money. Last-minute deals became the modus operandi.
But that approach caught up with lawmakers in October, when an impasse over funding resulted in a 16-day partial shutdown of government agencies and services.
Leaks from Snowden
From the moment former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden first leaked details of how broadly and frequently the United States spies on the citizens of its allies, there was angry talk.
Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, France, Italy and, of course, Germany and many other nations were enraged. A state visit by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was canceled after revelations that the NSA had been snooping through her texts and emails.
But the anger cranked up several notches when it was discovered that the “Chancellor’s Handy,” the cellphone used by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had been tapped since 2002, years before she ascended to the top spot in German politics. Germans were flabbergasted. The insult was intensely personal: Merkel’s cellphone has been seen as an extension of her personality since she arrived in office in November 2005.
Snowden — who sought and received temporary asylum in Russia — now is viewed as a hero by 6 out of 10 Germans.
Bombs in Boston
Three people died, more than a dozen lost limbs and hundreds were wounded when two bombs fashioned out of pressure cookers went off April 15 near the finish line of the venerable Boston Marathon.
The explosions sparked a massive manhunt and, after the release of photographs and surveillance video of two suspects, a citywide shutdown.
The two suspected bombers, later identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, allegedly killed a police officer and carjacked an SUV before engaging in a burst of gunfire with police in Watertown, just outside Boston.
Tamerlan was hit by a car driven by his brother and died during the shootout; Dzhokhar was captured hours later, hiding in a boat behind a home.
Dzhokhar faces murder and weapons of mass destruction charges. U.S. Attorney Eric Holder has until Jan. 31 to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
The bombings prompted a show of unity that became known as “Boston Strong.” The One Fund, established by Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, raised more than $60 million for the victims and their families.
Big surprise in Iran
Iran delivered a big surprise in June with the landslide victory of moderate Islamic cleric Hassan Rouhani as president, and the surprises keep on coming.
Gone is the firebrand rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, as Rouhani put it in his final rally, “turned every opportunity into a threat.” In place of his predecessor’s “extremism,” Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, stride the world stage as statesmen, offering big cutbacks in Iran’s nuclear-fuel enrichment program if the U.S. and other major powers dial back the economic sanctions that have impoverished the country and helped foment widespread discontent.
The interim deal announced in Geneva in November was a breakthrough, but transforming it into a comprehensive accord in just six months may prove an enormous task.
If a deal can be struck, and Iran’s tension with Saudi Arabia and Israel can be reduced, there’s the possibility for eventual cooperation between Washington and Tehran on other hotspots, such as Syria and Afghanistan.
Banner year for gay rights
In his inauguration speech last January, Obama referenced the 1969 riot at New York’s Stonewall Inn, the event that most consider the beginning of the gay rights movement.
More than four decades later, the push for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans achieved more victories than ever in 2013. Hundreds cheered outside the U.S. Supreme Court in July when the justices overturned a federal prohibition on gay marriage and restored the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.
Gay marriage became legal in six other states, either through legislatures or the courts, bringing the total to 16, plus the District of Columbia. Several states initially resisted extending same-sex spousal benefits to their National Guard members, but all eventually fell in line.
Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts of America lifted its long-standing prohibition on gay members, though the ban still applies to adult leaders.
In November, on a bipartisan vote of 64-32, the Senate approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a long-stalled bill banning job discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
Meltdown of the Arab Spring
Mohammed Morsi’s victory in Eygpt’s first democratic presidential election started out as the promise of a revolution dream fulfilled.
But by Jan. 25, 2013, the two-year anniversary of the uprising that led to the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, Morsi’s six-month tenure was already in trouble. Many saw Morsi, a former leading member of the secretive Muslim Brotherhood, as a divisive leader.
The streets were festering with anger, and public calls began for a national protest of his presidency on June 30, the one-year anniversary of his inauguration. The day would be called Egypt’s second revolution, as millions took to the streets to oppose Morsi. Four days later, Egypt’s last revered force, its military, stepped in. Flanked by top political and religious leaders, Minister of Defense Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi announced that Morsi was no longer the president, replaced by a military-named civilian government.
The election results had been usurped by a popular uprising, and Egypt hasn’t been the same since.
Morsi supporters staged sit-ins that were violently shut down Aug. 14 when security forces raided them, killing at least 1,100 people.
By the end of the year, even as the government promised parliamentary elections, a constitutional referendum and presidential elections, many feared that the old state had returned. The year ended with a looming question: Did 2013 mark the end of the Arab Spring?
Momentum for marijuana
A month after being re-elected, Obama said he had “bigger fish to fry” than to worry about pot smokers in Washington and Colorado, two states that had just voted to legalize marijuana.
It helped set the stage for a big year for marijuana. And many pot enthusiasts say there’s now so much momentum behind the drive to legalize the drug that it will be impossible to turn back the clock.
In December, Uruguay became the first nation to legalize marijuana.
In August, the Justice Department said it wouldn’t block Colorado and Washington state from selling pot for recreational use, beginning in 2014. Colorado will go first, opening more than 100 pot stores in January. More states appear ready to follow the lead with recreational marijuana. Twenty states already allow pot use for medical reasons.
Perhaps the biggest news came when two public opinion polls showed that, for the first time in history, a majority of Americans support legalization.
More troubles in Afghanistan
This was supposed to be the year the U.S. brokered peace talks between the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban. The process, however, never got off the ground.
Banned from displaying their flag and sign, the insurgents closed what was supposed to be the political office in Qatar in which the contacts were to take place, and stepped up their war to topple Karzai.
Tensions also spiraled between Karzai and the Obama administration as the United States and its allies continued a withdrawal of combat forces that’s due to be completed at the end of 2014. Having finalized a bilateral security accord that governs the deployment of U.S. military trainers and special forces after 2014, Karzai refused to sign the pact.
He said he wouldn’t sign until U.S. troops halted raids on Afghan homes and Washington revived the effort to initiate peace talks with the Taliban, something he himself had tried and failed at.
Some experts saw Karzai’s posturing as a bid to repair his deeply unpopular image at home while leveraging as much as he can from the United States — which fears a return of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups — before his term in office ends in April.
U.S. moves toward energy dominance
The year saw an acceleration of America’s energy revolution, as the U.S. started producing more oil than it imports for the first time since 1995 and moved toward becoming the world’s energy king.
The International Energy Agency advanced its projected timeline for the U.S. to overtake Saudi Arabia as the top oil producer on the globe, saying the milestone is likely to happen within the next two years.
America’s production surge is a result of advances in horizontal drilling and fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, the process of pumping high-pressure water and chemicals deep underground to release oil and gas trapped in shale rock. Environmental groups argue that it poses a threat to air and water.
Cheap natural gas continued to push coal out of the U.S. marketplace. Coal took another hit in September, when the Obama administration set limits for the first time on how much greenhouse gas pollution can come from power plants yet to be built.
No end for international terrorism
The Obama administration began the year by declaring that al-Qaida had been weakened. But events in Libya, Mali and Kenya suggested that terrorism and Islamic militancy remained very much alive.
In Libya, where U.S. and other NATO forces had helped bring about the end of former leader Moammar Gadhafi just two years ago, disorder prevailed. Militias that once fought Gadhafi’s forces sought to create an Islamic state and usurp Libya’s democratically elected government. Ansar al-Shariah, an extremist group whose members are suspected in the 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans, expanded its grip on eastern Libya.
In northern Mali, where government forces had lost control, a coalition of French and African forces intervened, wresting control from militants. But a truce with Tuareg separatists in the north remains fragile as peace talks collapsed in September.
In Kenya, militants carried out an attack Sept. 21 on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, killing 72 people and wounding 200. Al-Shabab, an Islamic militant group, claimed responsibility.
Mixed bag for the tea party
The tea party movement stayed in the spotlight, but that wasn’t always to its benefit.
The grass-roots conservative effort got much of the public’s blame for Washington’s budget inertia, and it ended the year with only 22 percent of people surveyed saying they were supporters, according to a December Gallup poll.
The tea party was seen as the main culprit behind congressional Republicans’ reluctance through much of the year to negotiate on budget issues, a stance that led to the government shutdown.
But the movement also showed some muscle, spawning new stars who could dominate news coverage of such issues. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who took office last January, was being seriously mentioned as a 2016 Republican presidential candidate. So were Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
More killing but no movement on gun control
On the morning of Sept. 16, 34-year-old Aaron Alexis entered Building 197 of the Washington Navy Yard, shooting and killing a dozen people in a matter of minutes.
The second-deadliest mass murder on a U.S. military base failed to prompt new restrictions on guns in America.
It was the same after Newtown. After Virginia Tech. After Tucson.
After Newtown, Obama proposed the nation’s most aggressive gun-control plan in generations. But the Senate fell short of having the votes needed to approve the proposals — expanding background checks, renewing a ban on assault weapons and limiting the size of ammunition clips — after most Republicans and a handful of Democrats rejected them.
Advocates say they were disappointed, but they remain invigorated by the first serious gun-control debate in two decades.
Resistance to school standards
In education, conservative critics ramped up opposition to the Common Core State Standards, arguing that they symbolize federal control of education, though the states developed the standards and adopted them voluntarily beginning in 2010. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia adopted the English and math standards.
The Common Core is an outline for what students should know and be able to do. The standards aim to match what children learn in other countries that are admired for their smarts. Decisions about what curriculum and books to use are left up to schools and teachers.
Two groups of states have been developing new tests that should start in 2014-15. But American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a Common Core supporter, said there should be a moratorium on using the tests in high-stakes evaluations of teachers and students.
Some parents worry about their kids getting lower marks on harder tests.
Common Core supporter Arne Duncan, the education secretary, took heat when he said at an education meeting that some of the pushback was from “white suburban moms” who were worried that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought.”
Guilty verdict for Manning in WikiLeaks case
In a military venue, a two-month trial ended with Army Pfc. Bradley Manning being found guilty of 20 violations relating to the theft and distribution of some 700,000 digital government documents. Manning had provided the materials to WikiLeaks, which publishes material from U.S. foreign corporations and governments.
In November, The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department is unlikely to bring charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange because government lawyers say they couldn’t do so without also trying to prosecute U.S. news organizations and journalists.
(This story includes reporting by Matthew Schofield, William Douglas, David Lightman, Nancy A. Youssef, Roy Gutman, Sean Cockerham, Michael Doyle, Anita Kumar, Lesley Clark, Renee Schoof, Tony Pugh, Jonathan S. Landay, Curtis Tate and Hotakainen.)
(c)2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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