Every year promises its share of surprising storylines — who foresaw the BP oil spill, Lebron James' "Decision" debacle, or the Chilean-miner saga coming in 2010? Still, looking ahead to next year, there are some looming issues that will almost certainly win space in the headlines. From the economy to the run-up to 2012's presidential race to the Android vs. iPhone smartphone war, here are 7 key questions to be answered in 2011:
1. Who will emerge as the favorite to win the 2012 GOP nomination?
The race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination will crystallize over the coming year. "No Republican dominates the field," said Dan Salz in The Washington Post, and in the eyes of political strategists, "every candidate has liabilities." Mitt Romney and moderate Tim Pawlenty are the only heavy hitters to declare their candidacies so far, but others, including social conservative Mike Huckabee and Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint, are testing the waters. Then there's Sarah Palin. The former vice presidential candidate's potential rivals are speaking of her "in glowing terms" for now, but will the civility continue once she decides whether to run in 2012?
2. Will Afghanistan stabilize?
Since President Obama committed an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan last year, the country has seen few visible signs of progress. 2010 has been the deadliest year of the war by far, with at least 472 American soldiers killed in action. Obama touted last week's progress report as proof that parts of the country are getting safer, says Mark Thompson in Time, but the assessment is vague on details; it "suggests progress while delaying decisions," and "tops it off by blaming a reluctant ally" — Pakistan — "as the root of the problem." With Obama still planning to begin withdrawing troops in July, the first half of 2011 will be a crucial test for his "surge" strategy.
3. Will there be an NFL lockout?
America's most popular sport may be headed for a shortened season for the first time since 1987. With the collective bargaining agreement between professional football players and team owners set to run out in March, the two sides are "at odds over how big a piece of the revenue pie the players should receive" — owners think players should take an 18 percent pay cut — as well as other issues such as drug testing. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently said it's "realistic" to hope for a deal by the end of the postseason in January, if the deeply divided sides commit to it. "Right," says Bill Lankhof in the Toronto Sun. And "the $9-billion U.S. industry [Goodell] heads up could also wipe out world hunger by the beginning of next season. But don't bet on it."
4. Will health-care reform be hobbled?
Conservatives were thrilled with Virginia judge Henry Hudson's recent ruling that the health-care reform law's key provision requiring everyone to buy insurance is unconstitutional. But since Hudson didn't actually strike down the law, his decision "guarantees only one thing," says Ben Adler in Newsweek — "that the constitutionality of the individual mandate will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court." When it finally gets to the high court, "the justices will generally split along partisan lines based on who appointed them," with the tie-breaking vote likely going to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who "has signed opinions pointing in both directions." But there's a patchwork of federal suits in the pipeline, so it "may be years before the justices resolve the law's constitutionality."
5. Can Obama bounce back?
2010 has been a difficult year for President Obama. But after his party's "shellacking" in November's congressional elections, the president closed out the year with a series of victories that have given him the momentum of a "comeback kid." He reached a compromise with Republicans on extending Bush-era tax cuts, helped convince Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," and saw passage of one of his signature foreign-policy goals, the New Start nuclear-arms treaty. Obama's liberal base may not be thrilled by middle-ground solutions, says Matt Bai in The New York Times, but "such compromises, ideal or not, are the building blocks of responsible governance." Polls show that the public wants Obama to work more with Republicans. Is this the key to success in 2011, or will it only disappoint the left?
6. Will unemployment finally start to fall?
The unemployment rate stands at a grim 9.8 percent, the highest in seven months, and the last national employment report showed that businesses are still hiring at an anemic rate. Still, many economists are bullish about the coming year, thanks to a "string of hopeful government reports on layoffs, factory production, and consumer spending." These signs don't guarantee a hiring surge,but if the economy grows at a 4 percent rate, which some think is possible, it "would at least be moving closer to the pace of expansion needed to bring down unemployment." But take the rosy forecasts with a grain of salt, says Kevin G. Hall at McClatchy, as economists' recent prognostications "have been about as accurate as the local weatherman's."
7. Will the Verizon iPhone live up to the hype?
After a seemingly neverending series of false starts, it appears the iPhone will finally be available on Verizon sometime in 2011. Verizon has found success with phones featuring the Android operating system, the company "needs the Apple iPhone badly," says one analyst. AT&T, currently the exclusive iPhone carrier, has faced widespread complaints about spotty coverage, yet the iPhone "sold at nearly twice the rate of all of Verizon's smartphone sales in the third quarter of 2010." As for AT&T, some think losing its iPhone exclusivity may be a "hidden blessing," since it will no longer have to pay Apple high fees for the privilege. New customers may be the biggest losers, says Marguerite Reardon at CNET, as Verizon could "suffer from the same network problems that AT&T experienced after it launched the iPhone."