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WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ After a dozen years of war and a half-dozen of economic troubles, the United States is beginning to wrestle with a question even more existential than those big events: What does it mean to be an American?
Immigration reform and gay marriage. Affirmative action and voting rights. Gun control and, more broadly, the role of government in our lives. Today, the Supreme Court, Congress, the White House and the public all are confronting a collective slate of issues that, taken together, speak to the country's evolving identity.
Fueling this debate: dramatic demographic changes that are causing equally dramatic shifts in public opinion on various matters. They suggest that the notion of how we define being an American may be shifting.
President Barack Obama, being inaugurated for a second term in January, seemed to see this coming at us. "We have always understood that when times change, so must we," Obama said as he began his second term with an agenda heavy on domestic issues. "Decisions," he said, "are upon us, and we cannot afford delay."
There are two key reasons why identity issues haven't pushed to the forefront until recently.
The 9/11 attacks produced a strong focus on all matters of terrorism and war. That included privacy, torture and anything related to national security and foreign policy â¿¿ and, of course, protecting ourselves from another attack. First Afghanistan weighed heavily, then Iraq.
Then the economy showed signs of softening. The economic slide began and the bottom dropped out, plunging the country into recession as 2009 began. Unemployment hit double digits before things stabilized. Next came the slow path to recovery and the debate on how to make it happen.
Now, the Iraq war is over, the Afghanistan one is winding to an end and immediate fears of further terrorism have, to some extent, faded. The economy has been rebounding: The job market is growing healthier, home prices are rising and consumers are starting to spend more. Those issues have receded enough to push domestic concerns higher on the list of what people, and thus politicians, think is most important.