If 2020 was a difficult year for most of the country, 2021 represented a reprieve — but mostly just because of the extremely low bar set by the previous year.
The nation in 2020 was locked down by a pandemic, endured a grueling and bitter presidential contest and contended with upheaval connected to a string of police killings of George Floyd and other Black people.
The last year was a better year in many ways from those lows, even if it was filled with frustrations, from a pandemic that would not go away to climate change and inflation.
Here are the 10 biggest news stories of the year.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol
The biggest and most shocking story of the year happened less than a week into 2021.
Hundreds of people invaded the Capitol as Congress was at work certifying President BidenJoe BidenBiden says Chile ‘powerful example’ for world in first call with president-elect Historians Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin to speak at House Jan. 6 event Overnight Health Care — Omicron puts pinch on vaccine mandates MORE’s victory in the Electoral College over now-former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden says Chile ‘powerful example’ for world in first call with president-elect Historians Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin to speak at House Jan. 6 event Pentagon streamlines process for requesting National Guard in DC MORE, forcing their evacuation.
Nearly a year after the attack, some of the images remain startling: an angry mob attacking police officers, hitting one with a pole bearing a U.S. flag, dragging another down the stairs under the Capitol Dome.
One woman who had entered the Capitol was shot and killed as protesters broke down doors and windows seeking to reach the Speaker’s hallway just off the House floor, where lawmakers were ducking for cover.
The attack raised fundamental questions about U.S. democracy and led to a year of legal drama for the dozens and dozens of people prosecuted. It fractured the Republican Party, sparked a select committee that included as its vice chair Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyHistorians Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin to speak at House Jan. 6 event More appropriate nominees for ‘Person of The Year’ Jan. 6 panel signals interest in whether Trump committed crime MORE (R-Wyo.) and led to Trump’s second impeachment with an acquittal in the Senate — where seven Republicans voted to convict.
A year later, perhaps equally shocking, there are divides over what happened on Jan. 6, and the ugly scenes appear to have further undermined faith in the electoral system.
Trump has continued to attack last year’s election nonstop while offering a defense for many of his supporters who attacked the Capitol.
The events of Jan. 6 seem poised to shadow American politics for several years, but particularly if there is a Biden-Trump rematch in 2024.
A pandemic that won’t end
People hoped they’d be back at work. They hoped they’d be back with their families. They hoped they’d be back at restaurants, at concerts and at sporting events.
To a degree they were, as everything from Broadway to baseball opened their doors.
But millions of workers remained home as the coronavirus continued to wreak havoc on American life. The year ended with a new omicron variant that is highly contagious and that appeared likely to complicate lives well into 2022.
It all represented a significant challenge to Biden, who ran on getting the coronavirus under control. Biden could point to significant victories in that fight, but growing pandemic fatigue and frustration by the end of the year represented a significant challenge to Biden’s party, which appears set for a difficult midterm year.
A year after the development of effective COVID-19 vaccines, only 61 percent of the nation’s population is vaccinated, a low figure that underscores deep anti-vax sentiment in the country and the politicization of vaccines in general.
The low vaccination rate has significantly slowed the nation’s recovery from COVID-19.
More people died from COVID-19 in 2021 than in 2020 despite the availability of vaccines as the delta variant hit the country hard, creating a pandemic among the unvaccinated. As of this writing, 466,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19 in 2021, compared to 354,000 in 2020, according to statistics kept by Our World in Data.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyFDA expected to authorize Pfizer boosters for ages 12 to 15: report Overnight Health Care — Biden officials weigh vax mandate for travel Fauci: Early data show omicron not as severe as delta for the vaccinated MORE in November said unvaccinated people were 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19 complications.
Biden for much of the year pleaded with the unvaccinated to take their shots, to little avail.
Trump himself in December said he had received a booster while touting vaccines as an effective way to stay healthy. He heard a smattering of boos, another reflection of the divide over vaccines.
Democrats fight over Biden agenda
Biden got a major gift on Jan. 5 when Democrats won two Senate seats in Georgia in special elections, giving the party the narrowest possible majority — with Vice President Harris breaking a 50-50 tie.
It meant Biden had a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate to craft his agenda. But anyone thinking it would be easy to pass that agenda was sorely mistaken.
Democrats were united early on in passing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief measure that Biden signed into law in March. And that was a significant achievement.
But the party struggled to unify over two other pillars of Biden’s agenda: a $1.2 trillion traditional infrastructure measure focused on bridges and roads and a much larger package focused on climate change and a stronger social safety net.
The Senate passed the traditional infrastructure bill with some GOP support, but liberals in the House refused to move it forward. They were worried that centrists like Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinEnergy & Environment — The biggest climate news of 2021 Publix grocery store chain to start offering paid parental leave Clinton: ‘It is a time for some careful thinking about what wins elections’ MORE (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaMitch McConnell should win 2021’s ‘Politician of the Year’ Biden finds uneven footing with Black voters Democrats set for showdown over filibuster, voting rights MORE (D-Ariz.) would not back the social spending package if the infrastructure bill moved forward.
Those centrists made a number of demands that lowered the price tax on the social spending bill from $3.5 trillion to $2 trillion. Eventually, after Biden vowed to work with Manchin and others to get that bill down, House liberals backed the traditional infrastructure bill, allowing it to pass the House and get to Biden’s desk.
But in December, Manchin announced his opposition to the House’s social spending bill, angering the White House and putting that legislation in jeopardy. It left many liberals thinking and saying “I told you so.”
Where Biden and Democrats go from here is anyone’s guess. The two pillars of his agenda that have passed are significant, but the $2 trillion bill faces an uncertain future. For many Democrats, it will be hard to see Biden’s term as a success if it does not become law.
Derek Chauvin is convicted
The nation was transfixed in April by the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd.
Chauvin had been filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck and back for an excruciating nine minutes and 29 seconds nearly a year earlier. Floyd was being detained for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill.
U.S. courts have historically not convicted police officers accused of killing or maiming Black people, and there were plenty who thought Chauvin could be found not guilty despite the nature of his crime and the evidence.
His conviction on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter immediately raised questions about whether the nation was turning a corner in how the justice system handles such cases.
Later in the year, another jury in Georgia found three white men guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger the men had trailed in their truck and confronted at gun point.
And in December, a jury in Minnesota convicted a police officer who had killed a Black man when she fired her gun instead of her Taser.
Abortion rights are challenged
Abortion rights came under their most significant challenge in decades in 2021, leading to the very real possibility that a conservative Supreme Court could undermine or even overrule the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
The court, which now includes three Trump appointees and has a 6-3 conservative majority, heard a challenge to a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks.
Arguments appeared to suggest the court was willing to place new restrictions on abortion, though it is unclear whether it would go so far as to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Separately, a Texas law that bans abortion after six weeks and provides no exceptions for rape and incest sparked a major pushback and separate legal battles. The Department of Justice argued the Texas law was plainly unconstitutional.
The battle over abortion will remain in the court system in 2022 and is also expected to color arguments over the midterms — especially with Democrats seeking to retain their slender Senate majority.
A chaotic exit from Afghanistan
The United States ended the longest war in U.S. history in August when the last troops left Afghanistan on schedule.
That the U.S. exited wasn’t shocking; there was growing opposition to continuing the war, and Biden had made it clear he wanted an end.
But the nature of the end was a big surprise.
The administration had thought the U.S.-backed government would hold on to power for at least six months. Instead, the Taliban had taken over the country before the final U.S. troops were out of the airport.
It was a devastating blow for Biden, who had promised weeks earlier that withdrawing from Afghanistan would not lead to a Saigon-like fall.
Instead, video was broadcast around the world of desperate people fleeing to the airport; some fell to their deaths as they clung to U.S. planes.
A suicide bomber at the Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 169 Afghans on Aug. 26. A retaliatory strike by the U.S. misidentified its target, killing innocent civilians and children.
The exit led to criticism of the Biden administration from both parties and appeared to start a slide in the polls that the president hadn’t recovered from at year’s end.
Prices in 2021 rose at the fastest rate in 40 years, creating real political problems for Biden and contributing to frustrations among the public.
The rising prices were triggered by a number of factors related to the pandemic, which left consumers with money to spend after many saved dollars while staying close to home in 2020.
Government stimulus checks and other measures added to consumer pockets, which helped the country survive a pandemic-fueled recession but contributed to price hikes on the other side.
The consumer spending also led to higher demand for goods, which contributed to supply chain problems that exacerbated inflation. Shortages of semiconductors led to shortages of new cars, which contributed to rising costs for rental cars.
Shortages of workers contributed to wage gains, but more price hikes at restaurants and hotels.
The White House at times struggled to keep up, initially downplaying inflation as something to be expected post-pandemic. By the end of the year, Biden was leaning into empathy for households dealing with rising costs, while some pushed the White House to criticize oil producers and big business for the higher prices.
It was another year of brutal weather — and fears about how a changing climate is affecting the weather — for much of the country.
A devastating winter storm hit Texas in February, while California and other Western states endured more wildfires. Hurricane Ida ravaged much of the country in August, first hitting Louisiana before traveling northeast and causing damage in a number of states.
While it remains difficult to link individual weather events to climate change, a new report in August from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said climate change was “unequivocally” caused by humans and that temperatures would rise more without significant action.
Progress on tackling climate change in the U.S. remained largely stalled despite the growing warnings.
The most significant actions to tackle climate change were included in Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, which passed the House but stalled in the Senate. And even the House bill’s climate provisions had been whittled back due to opposition from Manchin and others.
The battle of the ballot
Both parties were focused on future elections in 2021, but they had very different diagnoses on what needed to be fixed.
After an unprecedented presidential election held during a deadly pandemic that led to massive voting by mail, Republicans stepped up their efforts to stop alleged voter fraud.
A number of states with GOP governors, led by Texas, Georgia and Florida, enacted legislation that tightened election laws. Texas’s law, for example, limits the abilities of counties to expand voting hours.
Democrats argued the laws would restrict voting and disproportionately hit Democratic voters — particularly minority and young voters.
But in Congress, efforts by Democrats to pass federal legislation to expand voting were blocked by GOP filibusters. Some Democratic senators, notably Manchin and Sinema, refused to budge on creating an exception to the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, despite backing from Biden.
Republicans argued that Democrats were trying to jam through political legislation that was meant more to help Democrats keep their majorities than lead to more fairness at the ballot box.
The fight between the two parties, but also within the Democratic Party itself, are likely to figure prominently in the first few months of congressional action as the Senate moves to vote again on voting rights.