Nobody can predict all of the big stories that will dominate the news in the coming year. At the beginning of 2011, who could have possibly seen the raid that killed Osama bin Laden coming? Or Japan's tsunami? Or the Arab Spring? Or Justin Bieber's haircut? Still, there are some looming questions that are bound to be answered this year. From the economy to the presidential race to the fate of Apple without the late Steve Jobs, here are seven key questions to be answered in 2012:
1. Which GOP candidate will win the nomination?
In 2011, a parade of Republican presidential prospects soared in popularity, only to come quickly crashing down to Earth. GOP voters flirted with Donald Trump, then moved on to Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. As the year ended, the race was looking like it was "finally turning into a real fight" between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, says Jay Newton-Small at TIME. But now, Rick Santorum is surging in Iowa, and Newt is crashing. Still, anything could happen, says Rhodes Cook at Sabato's Crystal Ball. It used to be much easier to pull off a "quick knockout" on Super Tuesday, but now there are so many big, late primaries that a dark horse could still enter the race ... and win.
2. And will the Republican beat Obama?
With the president's approval ratings in the dumps, says Mona Charen at the Elizabethton Star, "some Republicans seem to have concluded that the party could nominate a ham sandwich and still defeat Obama." Even some liberals concede that if the election were held today, the president could very well lose. But "a year is a long time in politics." Obama is "amassing a huge war chest," and he's effectively accusing his rivals of doing the bidding of the rich at the expense of the poor. "To escape the noose the president is preparing, the Republican nominee must... convince independents and moderates that Republican reforms would benefit everyone, not just those at the top."
3. Will "ObamaCare" survive?
As part of its "potentially epic" term, the Supreme Court is expected to weigh in by June 2012 on the constitutionality of President Obama's health care reform law. Even legal experts aren't sure which way the starkly-divided Roberts Court will rule. But if the court knocks down all or part of President Obama's signature legislative achievement, it could deal his campaign a deadly blow. If Obama prevails, he'll be able to claim vindication — and take away one of the GOP's main arguments against him.
4. Will the U.S. economy get any better?
The fate of Obama, not to mention the rest of us, hinges largely on whether the economy improves. If unemployment remains at or near 9 percent, 2012 will be another painful year for many Americans. Financial chiefs at U.S. corporations don't expect to make big new layoffs this year, but they're "less optimistic about economic growth in 2012 than in previous years," says Nathalie Tadena in The Wall Street Journal. In one annual survey of 600 executives, only 38 percent said they expect the economy to grow this year, down from 56 percent in 2010 and 66 percent in 2009.
5. Will the euro — and Europe — survive?
European leaders have been struggling for months to keep one step ahead of disaster, cobbling together bailout funds and austerity plans to keep Greece, then Spain, then Italy from defaulting on their massive sovereign debts. As 2011 came to a close, the 17 nations in the eurozone, along with the rest of the European Union, minus Britain, signed a "historic" new treaty establishing closer fiscal ties among EU nations. The agreement includes automatic sanctions on eurozone nations with big deficits, requires European Commission reviews of national budgets, and mandates balanced budget amendments to eurozone nations' constitutions. The final treaty could still take months to negotiate next year. Will it be adopted and, more importantly, will it save Europe?
6. Which dictator will be the next to fall?
The Arab Spring swept aside a parade of brutal longtime rulers. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is on trial for corruption and deadly repression. Libya's Moammar Gadhafi is dead. Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is out of a job. And the spirit of protest is still strong in the Arab world. So who's next? The oil-rich royal family in Saudi Arabia is facing protests. Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh has signed an agreement promising to leave, but many fear that with his family still controlling the military, "he's not going away." The smart money is that embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be the next addition to the fallen dictators' club. And don't forget Russia's Vladimir Putin. The longtime Russian strongman is seeking a third presidential term in March, but is already facing massive protests from fed-up citizens.
7. How will Apple fare without Steve Jobs?
Steve Jobs personally oversaw Apple's evolution into a $350 billion corporation. His death last fall left the company without its visionary leader, the man who brought us the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad, and "told us what we needed before we wanted it," says the AP's Jordan Robertson. Can Apple continue to innovate and dominate under new CEO Tim Cook? Apple is vulnerable, as competitors launch one aspiring iPhone- or iPad-killer after another, says Peter Yared at CNET. Remember, "after Steve Jobs was fired in 1985, it took Microsoft 10 years to catch up." It won't take today's rivals nearly that long.