The year begins with the federal government hurtling toward the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and mandated budget cuts that would gouge a hole in the fragile economy. Rather than reaching the hoped-for “Grand Bargain” on taxes and spending, Republicans and Democrats strike a messy, short-term deal that raises revenue by closing loopholes in the tax code, while postponing the automatic budget cuts—called “the sequester”—for just two months. In his second inaugural address, President Obama makes an unapologetic case for progressive government, pledging action on immigration reform, climate change, and gay rights. Safety-net programs—including the health-care reforms now universally known as “Obamacare”—“do not make us a ‘nation of takers,’” says Obama, in reference to GOP rhetoric from the recent presidential campaign. “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Republicans vow to fight him every step of the way.
In the Vatican, 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI announces he’ll retire at the end of the month due to his growing infirmity, becoming the first pope to step down voluntarily since 1294. “God told me to,” Benedict later explains. President Obama uses his State of the Union speech to call for universal pre-kindergarten education, a hike in the minimum wage, and new gun regulation. The Republican response is delivered by rising GOP star Sen. Marco Rubio, who suffers an untimely case of dry mouth, awkwardly reaches out of the TV frame, and slurps gratefully from a bottle of Poland Spring. Anti-war Republican Chuck Hagel becomes Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, but barely survives his confirmation hearings, coming across as confused and defensive. Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz manages to create sympathy for Hagel by demanding that he prove he has never taken money from North Korea.
Last-minute negotiations between Republicans and Democrats fail, and the $85.4 billion in spending cuts mandated by the sequester take effect on March 1. The sky doesn’t fall, but there are substantial cuts to defense spending, medical research, and the Head Start program, and thousands of government employees are furloughed. At the conclave in the Vatican, the cardinals elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to be the new pope. He takes the name Francis. In Washington, Sen. Rand Paul, another Tea Party favorite, grabs the spotlight with a 13-hour talking filibuster on the Senate floor, demanding assurances from Attorney General Eric Holder that the White House cannot order drone strikes against Americans on U.S. soil. North Korea renounces its 1953 armistice with South Korea, and state media release photos of young dictator Kim Jong Un planning missile strikes on a map of the U.S. Nonetheless, tattooed former NBA great Dennis Rodman undertakes a surreal, one-man diplomatic mission to Pyongyang, and describes his pal Kim as “a cool guy who wears everyday, regular clothes and likes music and sports and stuff.”
The Senate narrowly rejects a bill that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases, ending the final attempt to enact some form of gun control in response to the 2012 Newtown, Conn., gun massacre. On April 15, two homemade bombs explode at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, wounding hundreds of spectators, many grievously, and killing three people, including an 8-year-old boy. The suspects are quickly identified as brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 26 and 19 respectively, Muslim immigrants of Chechen descent who grew up in the Boston area. After a frantic manhunt shuts down Boston and its immediate suburbs, the elder Tsarnaev is killed in a shoot-out with police, while a badly wounded Dzhokhar is captured in a Watertown backyard, where he’d been hiding in a covered boat. Tsarnaev later explains that the bombings were a response to the killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and were intended “to defend Islam from attack.”
As fighting in Syria enters its third year, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad apparently use nerve gas against rebels. President Obama has previously called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would invite U.S. military intervention, but now seems hesitant to intervene. On the domestic front, Obama finds himself beset by a trio of scandals. Newly released emails breathe life into GOP charges that the White House participated in crafting “talking points” designed to minimize political embarrassment over the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Meanwhile, the Justice Department admits it snooped on journalists’ phone records while investigating leaks from the White House, and the IRS admits that some officials gave “intensive scrutiny’’ to dozens of Tea Party–related and some liberal groups’ applications for tax-exempt status. “Americans are right to be angry about it,” Obama says. “I am angry about it.”
Iranian voters choose the centrist cleric Hassan Rouhani to replace the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Rouhani thanks God “that once again the sun of rationality and moderation is shining over Iran,” raising hopes of a diplomatic solution to the ongoing standoff over Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s forces appear to be gaining the upper hand, and President Obama finally authorizes the CIA to start supplying arms to the rebels. Americans are stunned when Edward Snowden, 29, a former government contractor, reveals that the National Security Agency has been keeping records of almost all U.S. phone activity for several years, while extensively spying on both phone calls and Internet activity abroad. While Snowden takes refuge in Hong Kong, Obama defends surveillance as a vital safeguard of national security. “You can’t have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy,” says Obama. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.” In a historic ruling, the Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act, thereby giving same-sex married couples full equality in the eyes of the federal government.
Democrat Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress in 2011 amid a “sexting” scandal, announces his candidacy for New York City mayor and quickly rises to the top of the polls. In Florida, neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman is acquitted of murdering unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. The verdict sparks another wave of racial enmity, with white conservatives arguing that Zimmerman never should have been charged, and blacks and liberals insisting he got away with murder. In Britain, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge welcome a son and name him George. Just weeks after it was launched, Weiner’s mayoral campaign hits a large pothole when it’s revealed that after his resignation from Congress he continued his online sexting adventures, albeit now under the evocative pseudonym “Carlos Danger.”
Government forces in Egypt gun down hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood protesters demanding the return of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. In rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, Syria, at least 1,400 civilians die in a sarin gas attack; Assad denies any responsibility. In Washington, Republicans rally behind a new high-stakes effort to block Obamacare’s rollout. Sens. Cruz and Mike Lee join dozens of House Republicans in pledging to shut down the government—due to run out of money Oct. 1—and vote against raising the federal debt ceiling unless Obama agrees to “defund,” or in effect repeal, the Affordable Care Act. Obama insists he will not submit to “blackmail,” but Tea Party Republicans are sure he will “blink.” At MTV’s annual Video Music Awards, the nation watches in chagrin as former child star Miley Cyrus, 20, performs while sticking her tongue out lasciviously, and simulating sex with a giant teddy bear and soul singer Robin Thicke. “You’re wanting to make history,” she later explains.
As evidence mounts of Assad’s involvement in the Aug. 21 chemical attacks, President Obama seeks authorization from a skeptical Congress for airstrikes against Syria. At the last minute, however, an off-the-cuff comment from Secretary of State John Kerry about Syria surrendering its chemical weapons is seized on by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Assad himself. Negotiations quickly lead to a deal in which Assad agrees to hand over his chemical weapons to U.N. inspectors; as a result, Assad gets to remain in power, and Obama escapes a likely “no” vote by Congress on military action. In Nairobi, Kenya, gunmen from the Somalia-based Islamist group al-Shabab storm the Westgate shopping mall, slaughtering 61 civilians before Kenyan commandos kill the hostage-takers. In a Democratic primary, the liberal Bill de Blasio wins a landslide victory and becomes the likely successor to Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Weiner finishes fifth. “I was an imperfect messenger,” Weiner tells supporters, before fleeing the unexpected arrival of a provocatively dressed Sydney Leathers, 23, a former acquaintance from Twitter.
Obama fails to blink, but House Republicans pass a spending bill that would delay the Affordable Care Act for a year, triggering the first government shutdown in 17 years. The uncertainty created by repeated Washington crises, says the nonpartisan Macroeconomic Advisers, has cut economic growth by 1 percent every year and added 1.4 percent to the unemployment rate. As the shutdown drags on, the GOP appears to have painted itself into a corner. “We have to get something out of this,” says Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.). “And I don’t know what that even is.” Finally, as a mid-month deadline to raise the federal debt-ceiling looms, stoking fears of a catastrophic default, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strikes a deal with Senate Democrats on a bill that funds the government and raises the debt ceiling through the New Year. As the government reopens, polls show that the public’s views of both the Republican Party and Congress have sunk to record lows. But the Obama administration rescues the GOP with a disastrous launch of the HealthCare.gov Web portal at the heart of the Affordable Care Act. The site provides access to the federal exchange supposed to help millions of Americans choose and enroll in insurance plans. It’s full of bugs and crashes repeatedly, and on day one, the total number of Americans who manage to enroll is six.
As a “tech surge” of new administrators and IT professionals tries to repair the -website, Obama’s approval rating sinks to 37 percent, the lowest level of his presidency. Obama’s oft-repeated assurance that “if you like your health plan, you can keep it” also turns out not to be true for middle-class people who bought cheap policies on the individual market, and Obama apologizes. In Geneva, Iran and six major world powers, including the U.S., reach a deal to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment for six months in return for a partial easing of economic sanctions, while negotiations for a permanent agreement take place.
Nelson Mandela dies at the age of 95. President Obama eulogizes the former freedom fighter and South African president as “one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth.” But Obama is criticized when photos emerge showing him taking a “selfie’’ with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the funeral, as Michelle Obama scowls in the background. After two months of frantic de-bugging, HealthCare.gov is showing signs of life, with enrollments sharply up. Questions remain, however, over the website’s “back end,” and whether those signing up will actually find themselves insured come January. A federal judge declares the NSA’s vast surveillance of phone records unconstitutional and “almost Orwellian.’’ An independent review panel appointed by Obama essentially agrees, noting in its report: “Americans must never make the mistake of wholly ‘trusting’ our public officials.”