Obama’s Second Term

The 2012 Presidential Election

Barack Obama was re-elected President of the United States on November 6th, 2012, defeating Republican opponent Mitt Romney.

Learning Objectives

Examine the 2012 U.S. presidential election

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 2012 U.S. presidential election was a race between Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama and Republican candidate and former Governor of Massachusetts  Mitt Romney. 
  • The major policy issues at stake in the 2012 election included the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the ongoing economic crisis, tax reform, women’s rights, and American foreign policy.
  • 270 electoral votes were required to win the election; Obama received 332 electoral votes, while Romney received 206.
  • Changes to the Electoral College apportionment of votes prior to the 2012 election saw a gain of six votes for the Republican party and a loss of six votes for the Democratic party when compared to the previous three presidential elections.
  • In his second term, President Obama continued to face a divided political climate.

Key Terms

  • Barack Obama: The 44th and President of the United States (2009-2017).
  • Hurricane Sandy: A storm that devastated portions of the Caribbean, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeastern United States during late October 2012. 
  • Mitt Romney: An American businessman and the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States in the 2012 election; from 2003 to 2007, he served as the 70th Governor of Massachusetts.

Overview: The Election of 2012

Barack Hussein Obama was re-elected President of the United States on Tuesday, November 6th, 2012, serving a second term as the nation’s first African-American president. The 2012 presidential election was a race between Democratic incumbent President Obama and Republican Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The two other presidential candidates included Green Party nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian Party nominee, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. 

Requiring 270 electoral votes to win the election, Obama received 303 electoral votes, while Romney earned 206. His victory was much narrower than his electoral victory in the 2008 Presidential Election against Senator John McCain. During his second term, President Obama continued to face a divided political climate with a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, often leading to stalemates in the Congress. 

Candidate Nominations

The Democratic nomination was uncontested with the incumbent, President Barack Obama, running for reelection. The Republicans, convinced Obama was vulnerable because of opposition to his healthcare program and a weak economy, nominated Mitt Romney, a well-known business executive-turned politician who had earlier signed healthcare reform into state law as governor of Massachusetts. Romney had unsuccessfully challenged McCain for the Republican nomination in 2008, but by 2012, he had remade himself politically by moving towards the party’s right wing and its newly created Tea Party faction, which was pulling the traditional conservative base further to the right with its strong opposition to abortion, gun control, and immigration.

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Republican candidate Mitt Romney: Former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney became the first member of the Mormon Church to run for president. He claimed his experience as a member of the Mormon lay clergy had made him sympathetic to the needs of the poor, but some of his campaign decisions contradicted this stance. 

Debates

Four debates between the Democratic and Republican presidential and vice presidential candidates occurred. The first took place on October 3rd between Obama and Romney. A Gallup poll found that 72% of the debate watchers believed Romney was the clear winner, 20% believed that Obama had won, and 9% believed it was a tie or had no opinion—the widest margin of victory for any presidential debate in Gallup history. The primary critiques of Obama’s performance were that he looked detached, seldom addressed his opponent directly, and was often looking down while Romney was speaking.

The vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan took place on October 11th. A CBS poll of uncommitted voters found that 50% of those viewers thought Biden did better, 31% thought Ryan did better, and 19% thought they tied. The final two presidential debates occurred on October 16th and October 22nd. The overall consensus among liberals as well as some conservatives was that Obama’s showing in the second debate was considerably stronger in comparison with his performance in the first debate. Analysts characterized him as more assertive and “tough” in the second debate.

Campaign Issues

The economic crisis, the growing deficit, and America’s longest undeclared war were the biggest obstacles to Obama’s re-election. The major policy issues at stake in the 2012 election included the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and health care reform, the ongoing economic condition, tax reform, women’s rights, and American foreign policy.

Romney appealed to a new attitude within the Republican Party. While the percentage of Democrats who agreed that the government should help people unable to provide for themselves had remained relatively stable from 1987 to 2012, at roughly 75-79%, the percentage of Republicans who felt the same way had decreased from 62-40% over the same period, with the greatest decline coming after 2007. Indeed, Romney himself revealed his disdain for people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder when, at a fundraising event attended by affluent Republicans, he remarked that he did not care to reach the 47% of Americans who would always vote for Obama because of their dependence on government assistance. In his eyes, this low-income portion of the population preferred to rely on government social programs instead of trying to improve their own lives. 

Starting out behind Obama in the polls, Romney significantly closed the gap in the first of three presidential debates, when he moved towards more centrist positions on many issues. Obama regained momentum in the remaining two debates and used his bailout of the auto industry to appeal to voters in the key states of Michigan and Ohio. Romney’s remarks about the 47% hurt his position among both poor Americans and those who sympathized with them, and he was highly criticized during his campaign due to his personal wealth. A long-time critic of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who claimed that it should be eliminated, Romney also likely lost votes in the Northeast when, a week before the election, Hurricane Sandy devastated the New England, New York, and New Jersey coasts. Obama and the federal government had largely rebuilt FEMA since its disastrous showing in New Orleans in 2005, and the agency quickly swung into action to assist the 8.5 million people affected by the disaster.

Election Results

While Romney lost the popular vote by a slight margin, he lost the electoral college by a much greater margin. Obama won the election, but the Republicans retained their hold on the House of Representatives, and the Democratic majority in the Senate grew razor-thin. Political bickering and intractable Republican resistance—including a 70% increase in filibusters over the 1980s, a refusal to allow a vote on some legislation, and the glacial pace at which the Senate confirmed the President’s judicial nominations—created political gridlock in Washington, interfering with Obama’s ability to secure any important legislative victories.

Electoral College Changes and Controversies

Population changes indicated by the 2010 U.S. Census changed the apportionment of votes in the Electoral College, potentially altering the allocation of votes among swing states. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Washington gained votes; conversely, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania lost votes. The change in electoral allotment shifts the allocation of votes across the Democratic-Republican divide; pundits predicted the Democratic Party would lose electoral votes in states previously won in the past three presidential elections, and the Republican Party would gain votes in states won by Republican candidates in the last three elections.

Some states enacted new electoral laws in 2011. For example, Florida and Iowa banned felons from voting, and various states shortened their voting periods, eliminating the option of early voting. These measures were criticized as strategies to impede certain groups of voters, including college students, African Americans, and Latinx Americans.

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Barack Obama: Incumbent President Barack Obama was the Democratic candidate for the 2012 presidential election. On November 6th, 2012, Obama was re-elected President for a second term.

Divided Government

Even as President Obama won reelection in 2012, the U.S. government became increasingly divided between liberals and conservatives.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the relationship between Obama and Congress, particularly during his second term

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Discontent over Democratic President Obama’s Affordable Care Act helped the Republicans capture the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. 
  • The Tea Party emerged from the right wing of the Republican Party and pulled the traditional conservative base further to the right; the party was strongly opposed to abortion, gun control, and immigration, and focused primarily on limiting government spending.
  • Although Obama won reelection in 2012, Republicans retained their hold on the House of Representatives, and the Democratic majority in the Senate grew razor-thin; political bickering and Republican resistance created political gridlock in Washington.
  • From October 1 through 16, 2013, the United States federal government entered a shutdown as Republicans in the House of Representatives attempted to delay or defund the Affordable Care Act.
  • During the shutdown, approximately 800,000 federal employees were indefinitely furloughed and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates. The Affordable Care Act was launched as scheduled on October 1.
  • The House Freedom Caucus, formed in January of 2015, is a congressional caucus consisting of conservative Republican members of the House of Representatives who are politically aligned with the Tea Party.

Key Terms

  • Antideficiency Act: Legislation enacted by the United States Congress in 1884 to prevent the incurring of obligations or the making of expenditures (outlays) in excess of amounts available in appropriations or funds; prohibits the federal government from entering into a contract that is not “fully funded” because doing so would obligate the government in the absence of an appropriation adequate to the needs of the contract.
  • Affordable Care Act: Also known as Obamacare, a United States federal statute signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010; represents the most significant overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system since 1965, and aims to increase the quality and affordability of health insurance, lower the uninsured rate by expanding public and private insurance coverage, and reduce the costs of healthcare for individuals and the government.  
  • Tea Party: An American political movement known for its conservative positions and its role in the Republican Party; members of the movement have called for lower taxes and a reduction of the U.S. national debt and federal budget deficit by reducing government spending.

Reelection and Political Gridlock

Discontent over Democratic President Obama’s Affordable Care Act helped the Republicans capture the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. It also helped spawn the Tea Party, a conservative movement that emerged from the right wing of the Republican Party and pulled the traditional conservative base further to the right. The Tea Party, which was strongly opposed to abortion, gun control, and immigration, focused primarily on limiting government spending and the size of the federal government.

Obama won reelection in 2012, but the Republicans retained their hold on the House of Representatives, and the Democratic majority in the Senate grew razor-thin. Political bickering and intractable Republican resistance—including a 70% increase in filibusters over the 1980s, a refusal to allow a vote on some legislation, and the glacial pace at which the Senate confirmed the President’s judicial nominations—created political gridlock in Washington, interfering with Obama’s ability to secure any important legislative victories.

The 2013 Government Shutdown

From October 1 through 16, 2013, the United States federal government entered a shutdown and curtailed most routine operations because neither legislation appropriating funds for fiscal year 2014 nor a continuing resolution for the interim authorization of appropriations for fiscal year 2014 was enacted in time. Regular government operations resumed on October 17 after an interim appropriations bill was signed into law.

Contributing Factors 

The tensions that would ultimately produce the 2013 shutdown began to take shape after Republicans, strengthened by the emergence of the Tea Party, won back a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives from the Democrats in 2010. Even at that time, some conservative activists and Tea Party-affiliated politicians were already calling on congressional Republicans to be willing to shut down the government in order to force congressional Democrats and the President to agree to deep cuts in spending and the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly known as “Obamacare”), which had been signed into law only a few months earlier. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a Republican who had presided over Congress during the last government shutdowns 15 years earlier, said in April 2010 that if Republicans won back control of Congress in the 2010 election, they should remove any funding for the Affordable Care Act in any appropriations bills they passed. 

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The Affordable Care Act: Obama signs the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House, March 23, 2010

Soon after Obama began his second term that month, a coalition of conservative activists led by former Reagan administration Attorney General Ed Meese (who is also an emeritus fellow of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation) began developing plans to defund the Affordable Care Act. The conservative activists strategized that they would be able to block implementation of the Act if they could persuade congressional Republicans to threaten cutting off financing for the entire federal government.

The Shutdown

A “funding-gap” was created when the two chambers of Congress failed to agree to an appropriations continuing resolution. The Republican-led House of Representatives, in part pressured by conservative senators such as Ted Cruz and conservative groups such as Heritage Action (a sister organization of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation), offered several continuing resolutions with language delaying or defunding the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic-led Senate passed several amended continuing resolutions for maintaining funding at then-current sequestration levels with no additional conditions. Political fights over this and other issues between the House on one side and President Barack Obama and the Senate on the other led to a budget impasse which threatened massive disruption.

The deadlock centered on the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2014, which was passed by the House of Representatives on September 20, 2013. The Senate stripped the bill of the measures meant to delay the Affordable Care Act and passed it in revised form on September 27, 2013. The House reinstated the Senate-removed measures and passed it again in the early morning hours on September 29. The Senate declined to pass the bill with measures to delay the Affordable Care Act, and the two legislative houses did not develop a compromise bill by the end of September 30, 2013, causing the federal government to shut down due to a lack of appropriated funds at the start of the new 2014 federal fiscal year. 

On October 1, 2013, many aspects of the Affordable Care Act implementation took effect, and the health insurance exchanges created by the Act launched as scheduled. Much of the Affordable Care Act is funded by previously authorized and mandatory spending, rather than discretionary spending, and the presence or lack of a continuing resolution did not affect it. Some of the law’s funds also come from multiple-year and “no-year” discretionary funds that are not affected by a lack of a continuing resolution. Late in the evening of October 16, 2013, Congress passed the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014, and the President signed it shortly after midnight on October 17, ending the government shutdown and suspending the debt limit until February 7, 2014.

Effects 

During the shutdown, approximately 800,000 federal employees were indefinitely furloughed (put on temporary leave of absence) and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates. Only those government services deemed “excepted” under the Antideficiency Act were continued, and only those employees deemed “excepted” continued to report to work. The previous U.S. federal government shutdown occurred in 1995–96. The 16-day-long shutdown of October 2013 was the third-longest government shutdown in U.S. history, after the 18-day shutdown in 1978 and the 21-day 1995–96 shutdown.

According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted several months following the shutdown, 81% of Americans disapproved of the shutdown, 86% felt it had damaged the United States’ image in the world, and 53% held Republicans accountable for the shutdown.

The Freedom Caucus and the Tea Party 

The Freedom Caucus, also known as the House Freedom Caucus, is a congressional caucus consisting of conservative Republican members of the United States House of Representatives. It was formed by a group of Congressmen (many of whom are also part of the Republican Study Committee, another conservative House group) as a smaller and more active group of conservatives. The caucus is sympathetic to the Tea Party movement. According to its mission statement, “The House Freedom Caucus gives a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans.”

The origins of the Caucus lie at the mid-January 2015 Republican congressional retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, when Raúl Labrador and eight other representatives met separately from the main group to plan their own agenda. The group started with these nine initial members, who set a criterion that new members must be willing to vote against Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John Boehner on legislation that the group opposed.

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Raúl Labrador: Raúl Labrador and eight other Republicans from the House of Representatives met separately from the main group to during a Republican congressional retreat in January 2015 to form the Freedom Caucus.

The Caucus was involved in the resignation of Boehner on September 25, 2015, and the ensuing leadership battle for the new Speaker. Members of the Caucus who had voted against Boehner for Speaker felt unfairly punished, accusing him of cutting them off from positions in the Republican Study Committee and depriving them of key committee assignments. Boehner found it increasingly difficult to manage House Republicans with the fierce opposition of the Freedom Caucus, and he sparred with them over their willingness to shut down the government in order to accomplish goals such as repealing the Affordable Care Act. On October 29, 2015, Paul Ryan succeeded John Boehner as the Speaker of the House.

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Paul Ryan: On October 29, 2015, Paul Ryan succeeded John Boehner as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Marriage Equality and the Courts

Several court ruling through the 21st century paved the way for marriage equality to be realized in 2015.

Learning Objectives

Describe the path towards marriage equality from Lawrence v. Texas, to United States v. Windsor, to Obergefell v. Hodges

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During Barack Obama’s second term in office, courts began to counter efforts by conservatives to outlaw same-sex marriage. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996 was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 
  • Lawrence v. Texas (2003) was a landmark decision in which the United States Supreme Court struck down the sodomy law in Texas and, by extension, invalidated sodomy laws in 13 other states, making same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory. 
  • United States v. Windsor (2013) was a civil rights case in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that restricting U.S. federal interpretation of “marriage” to apply only to heterosexual unions, by Section 3 of DOMA, is unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. 
  • Obergefell v. Hodges (July 26, 2015) was the U.S. Supreme Court case that held in a 5-4 decision that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 
  • While marriage equality was an important step forward for the rights of same-sex couples, LGBTQ people continue to face discrimination, violence, disproportionate rates of poverty and homelessness, and other obstacles to achieving full rights. 
  • During Obama’s administration, the rights of transgender people saw advancements through rulings by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Key Terms

  • Defense of Marriage Act: A United States federal law enacted September 21, 1996 that, prior to being ruled unconstitutional, defined marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman, allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states.

Achieving Marriage Equality

During Barack Obama’s second term in office, courts began to counter efforts by conservatives to outlaw same-sex marriage. A series of court decisions declared nine states’ prohibitions against same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court rejected an attempt to overturn a federal court ruling to that effect in California in June 2013. Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court also ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. These decisions seem to allow legal challenges in all the states that persist in trying to block same-sex unions.

Path Toward Marriage Equality

Lawrence v. Texas

Lawrence v. Texas (2003) was a landmark decision in which the United States Supreme Court struck down the sodomy law in Texas and, by extension, invalidated sodomy laws in 13 other states, making same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory. The Court, with a five-justice majority, overturned its previous ruling on the same issue in the 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick, where it had upheld a challenged Georgia statute and did not find a constitutional protection of sexual privacy. Lawrence explicitly overruled Bowers, holding that it had viewed the liberty interest too narrowly. The Court held that intimate consensual sexual conduct was part of the liberty protected by substantive due process under the 14th Amendment. Lawrence invalidated similar laws throughout the United States that criminalized sodomy between consenting adults acting in private, whatever the sex or gender of the participants. The outcome of the case was celebrated by gay rights advocates, who hoped that further legal advances might result as a consequence.

United States v. Windsor 

United States v. Windsor (2013) was a landmark civil rights case in which the United States Supreme Court held that restricting U.S. federal interpretation of “marriage” and “spouse” to apply only to heterosexual unions, by Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), is unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. 

Edith Windsor (born 1929) and Thea Spyer (1931–2009), a same-sex couple residing in New York, were lawfully married in Toronto, Canada, in 2007. The state of New York had recognized the marriage beginning in 2008 following a court decision. Spyer died in 2009, leaving her entire estate to Windsor; however, when Windsor sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, she was barred from doing so by Section 3 of DOMA, which provided that the term “spouse” only applied to marriages between a man and woman. The Internal Revenue Service found that the exemption did not apply to same-sex marriages, denied Windsor’s claim, and compelled her to pay $363,053 in estate taxes.

On November 9, 2010, Windsor filed a lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking a refund because DOMA singled out legally married same-sex couples for “differential treatment compared to other similarly situated couples without justification.” On June 6, 2012, Judge Barbara S. Jones ruled that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional under the due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment and ordered the federal government to issue the tax refund, including interest. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed the district court’s judgement on October 18, 2012. The case was carried further to the U.S. Supreme Court for review, and on June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision declaring Section 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional “as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.”

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Overturning DOMA: Photo of gay rights advocates gathered on the steps of the United States Supreme Court building on the morning of June 26, 2013, hours before the court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act.

Obergefell v. Hodges 

Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court held in a 5-4 decision that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Decided on June 26, 2015, Obergefell overturned Baker v. Nelson, a 1971 case in which the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a state law limiting marriage to persons of the opposite sex did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Obergefell requires all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other jurisdictions; this legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States and its possessions and territories. The Court examined the nature of fundamental rights guaranteed to all by the Constitution, the harm done to individuals by delaying the implementation of such rights while the democratic process plays out, and the evolving understanding of discrimination and inequality that has developed greatly since Baker. Prior to Obergefell, 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam already issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

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Obergefell v. Hodges

Plaintiffs Gregory Bourke (left) and Michael DeLeon (right) celebrate outside the Supreme Court building on June 26, 2015.

Beyond Marriage Equality 

While the achievement of legally-recognized marriage equality was an important step forward for the rights of same-sex couples, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning) people continue to face immense obstacles to equality in the United States. These obstacles take the form of discrimination (in the workplace, by landlords, in health facilities, in education, and in public accommodations), violence, and disproportionate rates of poverty and homelessness, especially among transgender youth and transgender people of color. 

During Obama’s administration, the struggle against discrimination based on gender identity has won some significant victories. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education ruled that schools receiving federal funds may not discriminate against transgender students, and a board within the Department of Health and Human Services decided that Medicare should cover sexual reassignment surgery. This decision is influential because private insurance companies often base their coverage on what Medicare considers appropriate and necessary forms of treatment for various conditions. 

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Marriage Equality: The White House was illuminated in rainbow colors on the evening of the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling.

Racial Tensions and Black Lives Matter

Originating in 2013 in response to police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement has raised awareness of institutionalized racism in the United States.

Learning Objectives

Describe the significance of Ferguson and the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement 

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an activist movement originating in the African-American community that campaigns against violence and institutionalized racism toward black people in the United States. 
  • BLM regularly organizes protests around the deaths of black people in killings by law enforcement officers, as well as broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system.
  • The movement began in 2013 with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. 
  • Black Lives Matter became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 police shooting deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.
  • The Black Lives Matter movement was co-founded by three black queer women who are active community organizers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. 
  • Since August of 2014, Black Lives Matter has organized more than one thousand protest demonstrations. Currently, there are at least 38 BLM chapters in the U.S. and Canada.

Key Terms

  • indict: To formally accuse of committing a crime.
  • institutionalized racism: An embedded pattern of social structures and institutions—such as governments, legal systems, educational systems, courts, financial systems, etc.—that awards privileges to white people and discriminates against people of color based on their race.

The Rise of Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an activist movement originating in the African-American community that campaigns against violence and institutionalized racism toward black people in the United States. BLM regularly organizes protests around the deaths of black people in killings by law enforcement officers, as well as broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system.

The movement began in 2013 with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. Black Lives Matter became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 police shooting deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.

Events 2012-Present

Taryvon Martin and the Acquittal of George Zimmerman 

Trayvon Benjamin Martin was an African American from Miami Gardens, Florida, who, at 17 years old, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Sanford, Florida. On the evening of February 26, 2012, Martin had gone to a convenience store and purchased candy and a canned drink. As Martin returned from the store, he walked through a neighborhood that had been victimized by robberies several times that year. Zimmerman, a member of the community watch, spotted him and called the Sanford Police to report him for suspicious behavior. Moments later, Martin was shot in the chest. Zimmerman was not charged at the time of the shooting by the Sanford Police, who said that there was no evidence to refute his claim of self-defense and that Florida’s stand your ground law prohibited law-enforcement officials from arresting or charging him. After national media focused on the tragedy, Zimmerman was eventually charged and tried in Martin’s death. A jury acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and of manslaughter in July 2013.

Michael Brown and Ferguson

Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white Ferguson police officer. The disputed circumstances of the shooting of the unarmed man sparked existing tensions in the predominantly black city, where protests and civil unrest erupted. The events received considerable attention in the U.S. and elsewhere, attracted protesters from outside the region, and sparked a vigorous debate in the United States about the relationship between law enforcement officers and African Americans, the militarization of the police, and the Use of Force Doctrine in Missouri and nationwide. Continued activism expanded the issues to include modern-day debtors prisons, for-profit policing, and school segregation.

As the details of the original shooting emerged, police established curfews and deployed riot squads to maintain order. Peaceful protests were met with police militarization, and some areas of the city turned violent. The unrest continued on November 24, 2014, after a grand jury did not indict Officer Wilson.

Eric Garner 

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American man, was killed in Staten Island, New York City, after a New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer put him in what has been described as a chokehold for about 15 to 19 seconds while arresting him for allegedly selling cigarettes, which Garner had denied. The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office attributed Garner’s death to a combination of a chokehold, compression of his chest, and poor health. NYPD policy prohibits the use of chokeholds, and video shows Garner repeatedly telling the officer “I can’t breathe” before he lost consciousness. The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. 

On December 3, 2014, the Richmond County grand jury decided not to indict Officer Pantaleo, who had performed the chokehold. On that day, the United States Department of Justice announced it would conduct an independent investigation. The event stirred public protests and rallies, with charges of police brutality made by protesters. By December 28, 2014, at least 50 demonstrations had been held nationwide specifically for Garner, while hundreds of demonstrations against general police brutality counted Garner as a focal point. On July 13, 2015, an out-of-court settlement was announced in which the City of New York would pay the Garner family $5.9 million.

Freddie Gray and Baltimore Protests

On April 12, 2015, Baltimore Police Department officers arrested Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American resident of Baltimore, Maryland, for possessing what the police alleged was an illegal switchblade. Gray sustained heavy injuries to his neck and spine while in transport in a police vehicle and fell into a coma. On April 18, 2015, the residents of Baltimore protested in front of the Western district police station. Gray died the following day, April 19, 2015, a week after the arrest. On April 21, 2015, pending an investigation of the incident, six Baltimore police officers were suspended with pay.

Further protests were organized after Gray’s death became public knowledge, amid the police department’s continuing inability to adequately or consistently explain the events following the arrest and the injuries. Spontaneous protests started after the funeral service, and civil unrest continued with at least 250 people arrested, at least 20 police officers injured, 285 to 350 businesses damaged, 60 structure fires, thousands of police and Maryland National Guard troops deployed, and a state of emergency declared in the city limits of Baltimore. On May 1, 2015, Gray’s death was ruled to be a homicide, and legal charges were issued against the six officers involved in the incident, including that of second-degree murder. The state of emergency was lifted on May 6.

In September 2015, it was decided that there would be separate trials for the accused officers. The first trial against Officer William Porter ended in mistrial in December 2015. Officer Edward Nero subsequently opted for a bench trial and was found not guilty by Circuit Judge Barry William in May 2016. In June, Officer Caesar Goodson, who faced the most severe charges, was also acquitted by Williams by means of a bench trial.

Organizing Against Violence

The Black Lives Matter movement was co-founded by three black queer women who are active community organizers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. BLM claims inspiration from the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement, the 1980s Black feminist movement, Pan-Africanism, Anti-Apartheid Movement, Hip hop, LGBTQ social movements, and Occupy Wall Street. Garza, Cullors and Tometi met through “Black Organizing for Leadership & Dignity” (BOLD), a national organization that trains community organizers. They began to question how they were going to respond to the devaluation of black lives after Zimmerman’s acquittal. Garza wrote a Facebook post titled “A Love Note to Black People” in which she wrote: “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” Cullors replied: “#BlackLivesMatter.” Tometi then added her support, and Black Lives Matter was born as an online campaign.

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Alicia Garza: Alicia Garza, American activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter

In August of 2014, BLM members organized their first in-person national protest in the form of a “Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride” to Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown. More than 500 members descended upon Ferguson to participate in non-violent demonstrations. Of the many groups that descended on Ferguson, Black Lives Matter emerged as one of the best organized and most visible groups, becoming nationally recognized as symbolic of the emerging movement. The overall Black Lives Matter movement is a decentralized network and has no formal hierarchy or structure. 

Since the Ferguson protests, participants in the movement have demonstrated against the deaths of numerous other African Americans by police actions or while in police custody, including those of Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castille. In the summer of 2015, Black Lives Matter began to publicly challenge politicians—including politicians in the 2016 United States presidential election—to state their positions on BLM issues. 

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Common social media logo/profile/avatar for the formal Black Lives Matter organization: The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

Obama’s Foreign Policy

In addition to inheriting the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, President Obama’s foreign policy efforts included relations with Syria, Israel, and Cuba.

Learning Objectives

Summarize Obama’s foreign policy efforts during his second term

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In addition to the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Obama’s second term has been marked by the Iran Deal, the Syrian Civil War, and the easing of tensions with Cuba.
  • The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as the Iran Deal, is an international agreement on the nuclear program of Iran reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015 between Iran, the United Nations Security Council, and the European Union. 
  • Under the Iran Deal, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its gas centrifuges for 13 years. 
  • After the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Obama authorized an effort to train rebels to fight against Syrian President Assad.
  • In 2011, the United States was the only nation to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in Palestine.
  • In December 2014, following secret meetings between Obama and Cuban President Castro, Obama announced the restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, popularly known as the “Cuban Thaw.” 

Key Terms

  • Arab Spring: A revolutionary wave of demonstrations, protests (both non-violent and violent), and civil wars in the Arab world that began on December 18, 2010 in Tunisia with the Tunisian Revolution and then spread throughout the countries of the Arab League and its surroundings.
  • détente: A term used to describe the general easing of the geo-political tensions between countries.

Overview: Obama’s Foreign Policy, 2012-2016

As Obama entered his second term in office, problems continued overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. In May 2014, President Obama announced that, for the most part, U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan were over. Although a residual force of 9,800 soldiers were to remain to continue training the Afghan army, it was planned that, by 2016, all U.S. troops would have left the country, except for a small number to defend U.S. diplomatic posts. In addition to the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Obama’s second term has been marked by the Iran Deal, the Syrian Civil War, support of Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the easing of tensions with Cuba.

The Iran Deal 

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as the Iran Deal, is an international agreement on the nuclear program of Iran reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States—plus Germany), and the European Union. Under the agreement, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its gas centrifuges for 13 years. For the next 15 years, Iran will only enrich uranium up to 3.67%. Iran also agreed not to build any new heavy-water facilities for the same period of time. Uranium-enrichment activities will be limited to a single facility using first-generation centrifuges for 10 years and other facilities will be converted to avoid proliferation risks. 

To monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have regular access to all Iranian nuclear facilities. The agreement provides that in return for verifiably abiding by its commitments, Iran will receive relief from U.S., European Union, and United Nations Security Council nuclear-related sanctions.

The Syrian Civil War 

The Syrian Civil War is an ongoing multi-sided armed conflict in Syria in which with international interventions have taken place. The unrest grew out of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, escalating to armed conflict after President Bashar al-Assad’s government violently repressed protests calling for his removal. The war is being fought by the Syrian Government, a loose alliance of Syrian Arab rebel groups, the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihaidst groups (including al-Nusra Front), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, sometimes referred to as ISIS). All sides receive substantial support from foreign players, leading many to label the conflict a proxy war waged by the regional and world major powers.

The image shows thousands of Syrian men lining the streets of Homs, Syria.

A demonstration in Homs, Syria against the al-Assad regime (April 18, 2011)

On October 18, 2011, during the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, Obama said that President “Assad must go” for the sake of the Syrian people. He reaffirmed that belief on November 19, 2015. To that end, Obama authorized an effort to train anti-Assad rebels. The program achieved minimal results, and the Obama Administration abandoned it in 2015. In the wake of a chemical weapons attack in Syria in 2013 widely blamed on the Assad regime, Obama insisted that Assad must give up his chemical weapons. This led to an agreement which resulted in Assad giving up many such weapons, but attacks with chlorine gas continued. In 2014, Obama authorized an air campaign aimed primarily at ISIL, but repeatedly promised that the U.S. would put “no boots on the ground” in Syria.

Israel

In 2011, the United States was the only nation to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in Palestine, with the United States being the only nation to do so. Obama supports the two-state solution to the Arab–Israeli conflict based on the 1967 borders with land swaps. In June of 2012, Obama said that the bond between the United States and Israel is “unbreakable.” During the initial years of the Obama administration, the U.S. increased military cooperation with Israel, including increased military aid, re-establishment of the U.S.-Israeli Joint Political Military Group and the Defense Policy Advisory Group, and an increase in visits among high-level military officials of both countries. 

In 2014, President Obama likened the Zionist movement to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He said that both movements seek to bring justice and equal rights to historically persecuted peoples. He explained, “To me, being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish is part and parcel with the values that I’ve been fighting for since I was politically conscious and started getting involved in politics.”

Cuba

Beginning in the spring of 2013, secret meetings were conducted between the United States and Cuba in the neutral locations of Canada and Vatican City. The Vatican first became involved in 2013 when Pope Francis advised the U.S. and Cuba to exchange prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. On December 10, 2013, Cuban President Raúl Castro, in a significant public moment, greeted and shook hands with Obama at the Nelson Mandela memorial service in Johannesburg.

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U.S. President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro: President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro shake hands during a meeting in Panama in April 2015

In December 2014, after the secret meetings, it was announced that Obama, with Pope Francis as an intermediary, had negotiated a restoration of relations with Cuba, after nearly 60 years of strained relations. The easing of tensions between the countries popularly came to be called the “Cuban Thaw.” On July 1, 2015, Obama announced that formal diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States would resume, and embassies would be opened in Washington and Havana. The countries’ respective “interests sections” in one another’s capitals were upgraded to embassies on July 20 and August 13, 2015, respectively. Obama visited Havana, Cuba for two days in March 2016, becoming the first sitting U.S. President to visit since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.