9.6 Challenges of the 21st Century

18 min readjune 16, 2020

Robby May

Robby May

Caleb Lagerwey

Caleb Lagerwey

AP US History 🇺🇸

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Election of 2000

Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s vice president, was nominated by the Democrats and George W. Bush, the governor of Texas and son of President George H. W. Bush was nominated by the Republicans. Ralph Nader running on the Green (third) party ticket complicated the election. While he won a small percentage of the vote, in a close election, a few points could make all the difference.
Gore seemed like the likely winner on election night and the major television networks predicted a Democratic victory in Florida. They reconsidered as Bush swept the South, including both Clinton and Gore’s home states. After midnight, the networks again called Florida, but this time for Bush. Gore telephoned the governor to concede, but then recanted an hour later when the margin in Florida was paper thin. 
For the next month, all eyes were on Florida. Gore had 200,000 more popular votes nationwide than Bush and 267 electoral votes to Bush’s 246. With Florida’s 25 electoral votes, either could win. 
Bush’s team worked with the Florida Republican Secretary of State to certify the results that showed the GOP candidate with a lead of 930 votes out of nearly 6 million cast. Citing voting problems, Gore asked for a recount. Many of the counties in Florida used antiquated punch card machines that resulted in some ballots not being clearly marked for any candidate.
The Florida Supreme Court twice ordered recounts. Bush lawyers appealed to the US Supreme Court. On December 12, in the case Bush vs. Gore the Court overruled the state courts call for a recount in a 5-4 decision that reflected the ideological divide. The next day Gore gracefully conceded. 

Tax Cuts

In 2001, Congress, enjoying a rare budget surplus, passed a $1.35 trillion dollar tax cut spread over 10 years. The bill lowered the top tax bracket, gradually eliminated estate taxes, increased the child tax credits and gave all taxpayers and immediate rebate. 
In 2003, Bush pushed through another round of tax cuts for stock dividends, capital gains, and married couples. Democrats criticized the tax cuts for giving most of the benefits to the richest 5% of the population and for contributing to the doubling of the national debt from $5 trillion to $10 trillion. 

No Child Left Behind

The president also succeeded in persuading Congress to enact a program of education reform under the label of “No Child Left Behind”. It required states to give annual performance tests to all elementary school students. It increased federal aid to education by $4 billion, to a total of $22 billion annually and mandated state tests in reading and math for all students in grades 3-8 and at least once in grades 10-12.


The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, known as 9/11, were the deadliest attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor. Members of the al-Qaeda terrorist group hijacked US domestic flights on the East Coast and flew them into buildings: they hit both World Trade Center towers in New York City, hit the Pentagon outside of DC, and intended to attack the US Capitol building in DC (the heroic actions of the passengers aboard the last plane [United 93] managed to divert the hijacking, sacrificing themselves in the process), crashing the plane into a farm field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The attacks, which killed almost 3,000 people, left the US confused and angry, with much of the world sympathizing with the US and pledging their support. 
The roots of 9/11 and al-Qaeda’s motivation go back decades. Osama bin Laden, their leader, had attacked the US before in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 embassy bombings, and the 2000 USS Cole bombings. Bin Laden and al Qaeda resented the US for keeping troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War, near to the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina. 
They also resented US support for Israel, US pollution of the environment, and the presence of gambling, drinking, and immoral sex in US society (among other complaints). One final cause was the globalization of American culture—sometimes nicknamed Coca-Colonization—that spread the allegedly offensive US culture to all corners of the globe. Being the world’s remaining superpower and the exporter of so much culture made some enemies. 

Department of Homeland Security

At the president’s urging, Congress approved a new Department of Homeland Security. It combined over 20 federal agencies including the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, and ones dealing with customs and immigration.


The Attorney General used new powers under the PATRIOT Act to conduct a crackdown on possible terrorists. The new act gave unparalleled powers to the US government to obtain information and expand surveillance and arrest powers. Many Americans were troubled by unlimited wiretaps, the collections of records about cell phone calls and emails, the use of military tribunals to try suspects accused of terrorism, and the imprisonment of suspects indefinitely as a US prison in Guantanamo, Cuba.  
The US also began using Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as a detention facility for capturing (suspected) terrorists, holding them on non-US soil and calling them “enemy combatants” and thus not classifying them as criminals or as prisoners of war. This legal limbo continued to be controversial into the 21st century, with the Obama administration unable to close down the base because of Congressional and other domestic opposition.

The War on Terror

After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush, sometimes nicknamed Bush 43, declared a “War on Terror” and instituted the Bush Doctrine, which claimed that the US had the right to attack enemies before they attacked the US; these were called pre-emptive strikes. 


President Bush led the US into a war in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks: Operation Enduring Freedom was the US invasion of Afghanistan aimed at capturing Osama bin Laden and ending the al Qaeda usage of Afghanistan as a base for attacks. While the US was successful in toppling the Afghan government led by the fundamentalist Taliban, the country remained unstable and divided by warfare and insurgency, plus the US failed to capture bin Laden until a 2011 special operations raid killed him in Pakistan. 
Obama made fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan a priority. He approved adding 17,000 more troops to the US forces in Afghanistan in 2009 and then 30,000 more in 2010.  The counterterrorism surge proved effective in Afghanistan, but anger against the US. After 2014, the new focus for US forces was to train and support the Afghan military. 
In May 2011, Osama bin Laden, was killed in Pakistan in a clandestine operation of the CIA and Navy SEALs.


In his second State of the Union address, he declared Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the “axis of evil”. Bush and his advisors claimed that Saddam Hussein had been secretly amassing large quantities of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)  Late in 2002, Secretary of State Powell negotiated an inspection plan with the UN Security Council, which Iraq accepted. In the following month, the UN inspectors failed to find WMDs in Iraq.
The Bush administration continued to push claims that they existed based on intelligence information that proved false. Congress approved a resolution in 2003 authorizing the president to use force in Iraq. A month later the UN Security Council voted unanimously to send its team of inspectors back to Iraq, warning Saddam of severe consequences if he failed to comply. They failed to find any evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The Bush administration kept pressing the Security Council for authorization to use force to compel Saddam to disarm. Finally, they decided to proceed on their own in Operation Iraqi Freedom. 65,000 US troops began to execute a prolonged invasion of Iraq from bases in Kuwait. 
Britain was the only other major power to join the US. Within two weeks, the US had captured Baghdad. Americans watched on television as joyous Iraqis toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein. The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction led critics to question the validity of the war. 
The problem of rebuilding the shattered Iraqi economy quickly overshadowed the debate over the war's legitimacy. Daily attacks on US troops grew in intensity. More troops died from these attacks than had been killed in the combat phase. Widespread sabotage of oil pipelines made economic recovery very slow. Motor attacks, roadside bombs, and handheld missile attacks against American forces continued. 
Pictures of the barbaric treatment of prisoners by US troops at Abu Ghraib further diminished America’s reputation in Iraq and around the world. 
In early 2009, the US continued to wind down ground combat operations in Iraq. US military support and air power helped the Iraqi forces battle insurgents through 2011, when the last of US forces were withdrawn. 

Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast as a Category 5 hurricane in 2005, it flooded and devastated New Orleans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) failed both to anticipate and respond to the crisis.  More than 1,000 people died and tens of thousands of others (mostly poor African Americans) were left in desperate conditions. 
Public dissatisfaction with the Katrina response, the Iraq War, and a variety of Republican scandals helped the Democrat to win control of both houses of Congress in 2006. 

The Great Recession

The housing boom of 2002-2007 was fueled by subprime (A subprime mortgage is a housing loan that's granted to borrowers with impaired credit history) and fraudulent mortgage lending and runaway real estate speculation. Wall Street firms packaged these high-risk loans into a variety of complex investments and sold them to unsuspecting investors around the world. As soon as the housing prices started to dip, the bubble burst. Prices collapsed, foreclosures climbed, and investments worth trillions of dollars lost value. Investors panicked, which caused many banks and financial institutions to fail. 
This resulted in a credit crisis because banks either lacked funds or were afraid to make the loans to businesses and consumers necessary for the day-to-day functioning of the economy. 
Americans were also hit with soaring gas prices (over $4 a gallon), stock market declines of more than 40%, and rising unemployment. 
In 2008, the federal government tried a stimulus package and took over a few critical financial institutions. In September, the bankruptcy of the large Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers led to a panic in the financial industry. The Bush administration asked Congress for additional funds  to help US banks and restore the credit markets.
The Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was passed, creating a $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) to purchase failing assets that included mortgages from financial institutions.  Conservatives attacked TARP as socialism and liberals attacked it as a bailout of Wall Street executives who had caused the problems. 
The Stock Market lost more than half of its value and unemployment reached 10%. Based on Keynesian economic ideas, Obama and Democrats enacted a number of programs to promote recovery and financial reform.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $787 billion in tax cuts to stimulate spending and $144 billion to help state and local governments maintain jobs and services. It was for construction projects, health care, education, and renewable energy. 
With the domestic auto industry near collapse, the federal government became deeply involved in its recovery. The government temporarily took over General Motors, while it went through bankruptcy and guided the sale of Chrysler to Fiat, an Italian automaker. The popular “Cash for Clunkers” program provided $3 billion in incentive to US residents to scrap old cars in order to promote sales and to purchase new, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Obama’s Domestic Policies

Obama did a variety of things soon after coming to office:
  • One of the first bills passed by Congress that Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that strengthened protection of equal pay for female employees.
  • He promised to close the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but failed to win needed congressional support. 
  • He appointed Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, however they replaced liberal justices, so the balance of the court did not change. 

LGBT Rights

Same-Sex Marriage

President Obama’s Department of Education issued a directive after interpreting language from Title IX that would guarantee transgender students the right to use whatever bathroom matched their gender identity. President Trump rescinded that order immediately after being elected.
Same-sex partners lived with one another yet lacked formal legal recognition and the legal benefits that came with a state-sanctioned marriage. States set age limits, marriage license requirements, divorce law, and other policies. If members of the LGBT community could legally marry, not only could they publicly enjoy the principle expressions and relationships that go with marriage, they could also begin to enjoy practical and tangible benefits granted to heterosexual couples: purchasing a home together, inheriting a deceased partner’s estate, and qualifying for spousal employee benefits. 
Vermont was an early state to legally recognize same-sex relationships and did so via the Vermont Supreme Court. The legislature then passed Vermont’s “civil unions” law, which declared that same-sex couples have “all the same benefits and protections and responsibilities under law…as are granted to spouses in a civil marriage.” After gay marriage became legal in New England, conservatives in 11 states counted with ballot measures in November 2004. Most of these initiatives added a distinct definition of traditional marriage to their state constitutions. George W. Bush called for a constitutional amendment doing the same. 
According to Gallup, the year 2011 marks the point when more than half of the public consistently favored legalizing same-sex marriage, and it has steadily grown since. President Obama had publicly opposed same-sex marriage during the 2008 campaign and after. However, in May 2012, he publicly supported same-sex marriage. What followed was a surge in public opinion among the African American community for marriage equality. An endorsement from the NAACP followed. Black support went from 41 to 59%.
That November, pro-same-sex marriage initiatives passed in all four states where they were on the ballot. In 2013, the Supreme court declare the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and let stand a California court’s overturning of a state law banning same-sex marriage. Within a year, over 30 states allowed same-sex marriage by legislation or court order.
Finally, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the 14th Amendment protects the rights of same-sex couples to marry. 

Other Cases

This year, in the 2019-2020 Supreme Court term, the Court has agreed to hear three cases involving allegations of workplace discrimination.
  • A New York skydiving instructor, Donald Zarda, said he was fired because he was gay. He has died, but his sister and his life partner continue to press the case.
  • A Georgia county government employee, Gerald Bostock, alleged he was fired from his job as a child welfare services coordinator because he is gay.  
  • A Michigan transgender woman, Aimee Stephens, said she was fired from the funeral home where she worked for six years as Anthony Stephens because of her transition from male to female.
More than 90% of Americans believe gays and lesbians should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. More than half believe new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

Equality Act

In 2019, Democrats introduced the Equality Act, which passed in the House, but failed to even be considered in the Senate. It would amend the Civil Rights Act to "prohibit discrimination on the basis of the sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition of an individual, as well as because of sex-based stereotypes.A Pew Research Poll found that 70% of Americans support the passage of the a law.

Refusal to Serve and Religious Freedom

The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not include LGBT persons when it defined the reasons merchants could not refuse service. So, depending on the state, businesses might have the legal right to refuse service, especially products or services directly tied to a wedding. In a reaction to Obergefell, a movement sprang up to enshrine in state constitutions, wording that would protect merchants or employees for this refusal, particularly if it is based on the merchant’s religious views. 
In 2018, a divided Supreme Court ruled in the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, clearing a Colorado baker of discrimination for refusing to create a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple, ruling that the state exhibited "religious hostility" against him. The justices ruled that a state civil rights commission was hostile to him while allowing other bakers to refuse to create cakes that demeaned gays and same-sex marriages. As a result, the long-awaited decision did not resolve whether other opponents of same-sex marriage, including bakers, florists, photographers and videographers, can refuse commercial wedding services to gay couples.
In 2019, in the case Arlene’s Flowers v. State of Washington, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled against a florist who declined to make an arrangement for the wedding of a same-sex couple. The Washington case involves Arlene's Flowers and Barronelle Stutzman, a florist who refused in 2013 to make a floral arrangement for long-time client Robert Ingersoll's same-sex wedding. In a statement issued last year, she said that while she serves everyone, she cannot "create a custom floral arrangements that celebrates events or express messages at odds with my faith."

Transgender Issues

One more unresolved issue is how schools and other government institutions handle where transgender citizens go to the restroom or what locker room they use. In education, this controversy is usually handled at the local level. Several “bathroom bills” have surfaced at statehouses across the country. 

Health Care

The US “fee for service” medical system was the most expensive in the world but produced mixed results. It promoted innovation but left more than 45 million people outside the system to seek medical care in emergency rooms. 
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (Obamacare) aimed to extend affordable health care insurance to an additional 25 million Americans through combinations of subsidies, mandates, insurance exchanges, and expansion of Medicaid while introducing medical and insurance reforms to control health care costs.
  • In what was known as the individual mandate, it required all persons to purchase health insurance. If you did not, at tax time, you would pay a $300-500 fine. Many chose just to pay the fine. 
  • It required insurance companies to accept patients, regardless of preexisting conditions
  • allowed children remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26
  • and funded wellness exams and women’s medical needs. 
Nearly 20 million Americans gained coverage through private health insurance or Medicaid. 
The Republicans tried more than 50 times to overturn or defund the Affordable Care Act, without success.


Obama promoted reforms in early childhood and K-12 education (Race to the Top), including more private-public partnerships and more use of charter schools. 
The bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind, which had been attacked for excessive testing and for supporting efforts to develop common curriculum standards across the country.

Environmental Concerns

The post-1980 US involvement in wars in the Middle East reminded the US again, even after the oil shocks of the 1970s, of the dangers of the US dependency on foreign oil. The US began to seek additional sources of energy to wean the US off of that dependency and to combat the growing awareness of the negative effects of climate change.
One solution was building more nuclear power plants, something proposed under Bush 43 and carried out under Obama. Some environmentalists still expressed concern about the safety of these plants (see the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 or Chernobyl in 1986). Another solution was fracking, which involved pumping high-pressured water into the ground to release natural gas and oil. This greatly increased domestic oil supplies, but at the cost of significant environmental damage. The Obama administration also made solar power and hybrid cars more affordable through tax breaks and other incentives. 
In general, the American public became more aware of the environmental costs of limitless consumption. Recycling, organic farming, tiny houses, public transportation, solar panels, green roofing, and other sustainability initiatives became more widespread during the 21st century, even as climate change continued to be a problem with controversial solutions.

Popular Movements

While the US economy recovered from the Great Recession, its robust economy was increasingly tilted toward the rich, leading to protests like Occupy Wallstreet that protested corporate greed. Obama’s presidency sparked a white racial backlash and racially-tinged anti-government protests like the Tea Party Movement. The increasing visibility of the pattern of the killing of unarmed Black men by police sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, which was also controversial.
The US also remained divided politically, with Congress becoming deluged with campaign spending after the Supreme Court declared campaign contributions to be protected free speech in Citizens United v. FEC. The electorate and Congress became more polarized thanks to safe congressional districts—some Gerrymandered—and tribal politics tied to identity rather than policy differences. Political norms, some from the founding of the country and some from the recent Cold War era, began to crumble: the Senate began to use the filibuster more and more, political rhetoric continued to heat up and become more zero-sum and bigoted at times, and the so-called imperial presidency continued to grow in power over Congress. 

Supreme Court Opening

The unexpected death of Antonin Scalia in 2016, led to a new arena for conflict. Senate Republicans refused to hold a hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, because Obama was in his last year in office and the Republicans wanted to hold out until hopefully, a Republican would be elected and could appoint the position. As a result, the Supreme Court went 13 months with only 8 members. With the Court deadlocked 4-4, it could not rule on decisions made in the lower federal courts. 

Gun Violence

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v Heller that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.
The mass shooting of 26 children (Kindergarten and 1st Grade) and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut and the murder of 9 African Americans in South Carolina church sparked another debate over gun rights. 
Obama’s proposals to tighten gun laws and background checks to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental health problems went nowhere in Congress because of opposition from gun advocates.

Arab Spring

In 2010, a wave of protests broke out across the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring. Civil unrest and armed rebellion toppled governments in Tunisia, Libya (the leader, Muammar Gaddafi was killed), Egypt (the leader, Hosni Mubarak, was imprisoned) , and Yemen.
The civil war in Syria created a greater humanitarian crisis as 12.5 million Syrian refugees tried to escape to safety, often to neighboring countries in the Middle East and Europe.

Rise of ISIS

In Syria and Iraq, another terrorist movement, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria also known as ISIL) vowed to create a worldwide caliphate under strict Islamic law. This well financed movement used social media to recruit fights from around the world. Former members of the Iraqi military, driven from power in the US invasion of Iraq, also joined ISIS.
President Obama was reluctant to return American soldiers to fight in Iraq and Syria, but did commit American air power and trainers to help Iraq regain lost territories. ISIS was finally defeated during the presidency of Donald Trump. 

Iran Nuclear Deal

The Obama Administration joined other world powers in a 2015 agreement that would prevent Iran from developing and producing nuclear bombs for at least 15 years. Republicans opposed the agreement because it released the frozen assets of Iran, which it could use for conventional weapons and terrorism. Soon after coming to office, President Trump pulled America out of the agreement and the agreement collapsed, allowing Iran to once again begin enriching uranium that could be used to produce a nuclear weapon. 

Politics and Problems in 2016

2016 was a major year around the world:
  • In 2016, the Russians, Chinese, Iran’s and others used cyber attacks to steal US private and governmental digital data, including credit card and personnel records.
  • Russian agents hacked into the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and distributed the information through the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks in an effort to disrupt the US election.
  • The flood of more than a million refugees and immigrants into Europe from the Middle East and Africa fueled a backlash against worldwide globalization trends. 
  • Many struggling middle-class families felt that their jobs, safety, and cultural identities were under attack, which sparked the rise of more nationalistic politics
  • Anti-immigration sentiment was a major factor in the “Brexit” vote by Great Britain to leave the 28 nation European Union. 
  • A political outsider, Donald Trump who was a well-known real estate developer and reality TV show star, aggressively attacked immigration, Washington politicians (The swamp) and international trade deals (NAFTA) while promoting a nationalist movement “Make America Great Again.” He defeated Hillary Clinton in the presidential election of 2016.
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