The List

8 Ways the World Has Changed Since Obama's Election

With Election Day finally upon us, it's worth reflecting on what a difference four years makes.

During the 2012 presidential election, Republicans assailed President Barack Obama's economic record by invoking Ronald Reagan's famous question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

What if we asked the same question about the world? Four years is a long time, and you might be surprised by just how much has changed since Obama was elected in 2008. Here's a look at eight of the most important and interesting trends.

TECH REVOLUTION

Yes, the world had iPhones four years ago and Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit were all part of the webscape, but the face of technology has changed dramatically since the last election -- most notably by reaching roughly a billion more people. Since November 2008, the number of Internet users worldwide has soared from roughly 1.5 to roughly 2.5 billion -- a 40 percent increase. At the same time, the number of Facebook users increased tenfold from 100 million to more than 1 billion and the average number of Tweets per day increased from around 300,000 to 340 million. (During the hour-and-a-half-long presidential debate in Denver, Twitter fanatics posted more than 10 million times.)

Just how much the speed of technological change has affected world politics still a matter for debate, but it seems clear that Twitter and Facebook played at least some role in the uprisings that spread across the Arab world in 2011. The Occupy movement, too, made use of social media and, perhaps more creatively, harnessed the power of drones -- now sold privately for as little as $300 -- to monitor police brutality. (Watch this video from Occupy Warsaw.) Other technological advances that were perhaps unimaginable back in 2008 include private space travel, radar that can see through walls, and mosquito lasers.

ECONOMIC MALAISE

At this time four years ago, Lehman Brothers had only recently collapsed, Japan still had a larger economy than China, and European leaders had yet to hold their first debt crisis summit. Unfortunately, this period of great change has not brought much relief to a sluggish global economy. The International Labor Organization estimates that the global unemployment rate has risen from 5.6 percent in 2008 to a projected 6 percent in 2012 (with more than 200 million people currently out of work around the world out of 3.3 billion workers), and reports that the 2011 global employment rate of 60.3 percent is 0.9 percentage points lower than before the recession -- translating into 50 million "missing" jobs in the world economy. As youth and long-term unemployment rise, poverty rates and inequality have also increased in half of the world's advanced economies and one-third of the world's developing economies, heightening the risk of social unrest everywhere from Europe to North Africa. World gross product has recovered after falling 2.4 percent in 2009, but growth is decelerating, raising the specter of another economic downturn afflicting developed and developing countries alike.

The United States is still the largest economy in the world, but over the course of Obama's term China has overtaken Japan as the world's second-largest economy and Brazil has surpassed Britain as the world's sixth-largest. Meanwhile, the United States has fallen from first place in the World Economic Forum's 2008-2009 Global Competitiveness Index to seventh place in the organization's 2012-2013 ranking (Switzerland now tops the list). The report praised the country's innovative corporate sector, first-class university system, and flexible labor markets but raised alarm bells about its partisan gridlock and wasteful spending. "A lack of macroeconomic stability continues to be the country's greatest area of weakness," the study concluded.

ARCTIC SEA MELT

Four years is too short of an interval to meaningfully capture the extent of climate change, but one area that stands out for its rapid deterioration is Arctic sea melt. Every summer, part of the Arctic Ocean melts away and historically, about half of it is gone by September. Since scientists began monitoring ice melt in the 1970s, however, melting has accelerated substantially so that ice now covers only about a quarter of the Arctic Ocean at its lowest point. Even in the last four years, the low point -- the day when melting stops and the sea begins to gradually freeze over again -- has dropped appreciably, from 1.61 million square miles of ice coverage (29 percent of the Arctic Ocean) in 2008 to 1.32 million square miles (24 percent of the Arctic Ocean) in 2012.

The average ice extent for the month of September, a standard measure for the study of Arctic sea ice, tells a similar story. In 2008, it stood at 1.80 million square miles, whereas this year it clocked in at 1.39 million square miles -- 48.7 percent below average and the lowest level in the satellite era. Arctic ice is disappearing so quickly that Peter Wadhams, a Cambridge University professor who has been collecting data on ice thickness from submarines for many years, predicts that the ice will melt completely by 2015 or 2016.

GLOBAL HEALTH ADVANCES

Because of the significant time lag for most data on global health trends, it's difficult to paint a comprehensive picture of how the fight against disease has fared over the last four years. Even so, it's clear that there have been some significant victories: India, which in 2009 had the highest incidence of polio in the world, has been removed from the World Health Organizations polio-endemic list, leaving Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as the lone holdouts in the fight against the crippling childhood disease.

Meanwhile, the last four years has seen a 132 percent increase in the number of people with access to preventative malaria measures and the preliminary results have been positive. Between 2008 and 2010, the last year for which the World Health Organization has data, the number of annual malaria deaths dropped from nearly 863,000  to 655,000 -- and this while the world's population increased by almost 200 million. At the same time, researchers have made substantial progress toward a malaria vaccine -- which reduced the incidence of the tropical disease by 50 percent in a 2011 clinical trial in Africa -- though there is growing concern about the spread of drug-resistant strains of malaria, especially in Southeast Asia.

Programs like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria have also made substantial gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS -- so much so that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about the plight of out-of-work coffin makers in Lesotho. There are still roughly 2.7 million new infections annually around the world, but according to the 2011 UNAIDS report, both infections and deaths are on the wane.

DICTATOR DEMOGRAPHICS

The jury is still out on the so-called Arab Spring, but the last four years have been an unmitigated disaster for some of the world's worst and longest-serving rulers (known at FP as the committee to destroy the world). Not only did angry publics force out aging strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya -- who had ruled for a combined 116 years -- but a surprising number of dictators from all over the world have kicked the bucket since Obama was elected. In December 2008, Lansana Conté died in office, ending an illustrious 24-year stint as president of Guinea, during which the West African country was consistently rated among the most corrupt on the planet. A year later, the world bid farewell to the notoriously self-obsessed Omar Bongo, who had spent the previous 41 years running oil-rich Gabon as his personal estate. In the last year, North Korean enigma Kim Jong Il and Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi both died unexpectedly. The two had 38 years of leadership experience between them.

MORE REFUGEES, FEWER MIGRANTS

The past four years have produced two storylines when it comes to migration patterns. First, the Arab Spring has produced major outflows of migrants and refugees from countries such as Libya and Syria. According to the United Nations, 335,000 Syrian refugees have registered with the international body and 700,000 Syrians could flee the violence in their country by the end of 2012, while more than 1 million people have displaced inside Syria. As was the case with Libya, most Syrians are seeking refuge in neighboring countries rather than in Europe -- in Syria's case, mainly Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. We know that the number of refugees worldwide increased from 15.2 million people in 2008 to 16 million in 2010, but there's no data yet on just what kind of impact the uprisings in the Middle East have had on overall refugee trends.

More broadly, the global economic recession has slowed migration to the world's wealthiest countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that the number of labor migrants to OECD countries dropped from 880,000 in 2007 to 780,000 in 2010, though preliminary 2011 figures suggest that migration to most European OECD members has since increased. This spring, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that after four decades of heavy Mexican migration to the United States, the "net migration flow" of Mexicans to the United States had stopped and possibly even reversed. A more recent report suggests Mexican migration to the United States may be increasing again, but the recession-induced dropoff is still remarkable.

DEMOCRACY SETBACKS

The Arab uprisings may have rid the world of some of its least savory leaders, but over the last four years the world has actually become less democratic. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which analyzes global democracy trends, the number of "full democracies" in the world declined by 16.7 percent between 2008 and 2011, the last year for which data is available. At the same time, the number of "flawed democracies" and "authoritarian regimes" increased by 5.7 and 3.8 percent respectively, while "hybrid regimes" remained constant. Freedom House, which also conducts research on governance trends, reports that 2011 "marks the sixth consecutive year in which countries with [democratic] declines outnumbered those with improvements."

Most of the damage is due to democratic backsliding in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe, though even the United States took a hit. Between 2008 and 2011, the United States slipped from 18th to 19th on EIU's Democracy Index, with a noticeable drop in its "functioning of government" score, one of the five metrics on which countries are rated.

PROGRESS ON PEACE

Measuring world peace is, as the Economist has pointed out, akin to describing "how happiness smells." Nonetheless, the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace publishes an annual Global Peace Index that rates the peacefulness of countries on a variety of indicators, including internal and external conflict, military spending, and respect for human rights. Their findings suggest that the world is ever so slightly more peaceful today than it was in 2008. The average score (based on a 1-5 scale, 1 being the most peaceful) for nations surveyed in 2012 was 2.011, whereas the average score in 2008 was 2.043. Steve Killelea, the survey's founder, told Reuters that the decline was due reduced military spending -- in part, because of the global financial crisis -- as well as declining violence in Africa. "The improvement in relation with the states and a greater reluctance to resort to war is very profound, particularly in Africa," he said.

The Global Peace Index findings, however limited, fit into a larger pattern identified by scholars like Steven Pinker that suggests violence has declined appreciably throughout history and especially during the 20th century. For most of human history, Pinker argues, life was indeed "nasty, brutish, and short" and if "the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century ... there would have been 2 billion deaths from wars and homicide, rather than 100 million." It's a compelling argument as we contemplate the world full of global threats that will greet the next U.S. president.

National Security

Taking the Hill

The eight races the military-industrial complex is watching.

National security issues generally don't play a big role in congressional races. But Pentagon spending represents billions of dollars -- and that translates to jobs. In states like Virginia and Maine, that means that defense is a local economic issue that can drive voters and affect the outcome of contests. And even if candidates themselves don't address national security, the departure of the politician they are vying to replace can have repercussions on Capitol Hill.  Changes to the make-up of the Senate and House armed services committees could frame the way the Hill grapples with sequester, war planning, and the speed at which the United States leaves Afghanistan. Just as the elections will shake up foreign policy no matter who wins, they're likely to do the same for defense. Here are 8 races to watch:

Virginia, Senate: Tim Kaine (D) vs. George Allen (R)
No race is as intermeshed with defense issues as the fight for Virginia's Senate seat between Democrat Tim Kaine, who supports cuts to the Pentagon budget, and Republican George Allen, who opposes them. The commonwealth is a major military hub, housing the Atlantic Fleet and other commands in the Norfolk region. The Pentagon also employs hundreds of thousands of federal workers and civilian contractors in Northern Virginia. So nearly every Virginia ad that mentions defense has just one thing in mind: jobs. The proposed cuts in defense spending growth, as well as the automatic cuts looming in January, have led Allen's campaign to warn voters that 200,000 Virginia jobs could be lost if Kaine is elected and President Obama is returned to the White House. The numbers have been criticized as a scare tactic, but it's a real concern for voters -- more than national security, at least. Of course, the top military brass helped craft Obama's defense proposal and Republicans and Democrats in Congress put the cuts into law themselves. That means that, ads aside, it won't be easy for Allen to increase defense spending unless there's also a change in the White House.

What the polls say: Kaine is up 1.8 percent over Allen, according to the Real Clear Politics average.

Connecticut, Senate: Chris Murphy (D) vs. Linda McMahon (R)
Joe Lieberman's seat in Connecticut -- the center of U.S. submarine-building -- is a hot commodity. The state loses a powerful advocate in Lieberman, who holds key defense-related posts in the Senate. He is the second-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, behind Chairman Carl Levin, of Michigan. Lieberman also chairs the Air Land Subcommittee and is chairman of the full Homeland Security Committee. Now, those posts are up for grabs. The next junior senator from Connecticut will have to fight for the same key defense interests, though, including the submarine base in New London, from a backbench spot. Submarines were one of the few big-ticket weapons the Obama administration put on hold to save taxpayer money, by delaying construction on one of the two submarines being built each year. Mitt Romney has pledged to reverse that decision -- but he would need help from Republicans in the Senate to do it. Connecticut's seat would help.

What the polls say: Murphy is up by 5 points according to the RCP average.

Massachusetts, Senate: Scott Brown (R) vs. Elizabeth Warren (D)
In a recent candidate questionnaire, Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren were asked if they supported continuing combat operations in Afghanistan. Brown said yes. Warren said no. There are few liberal Democrats in Congress who outright oppose the war in Afghanistan, and fewer still in the Senate. A Warren victory, which polls before Tuesday show is more likely, would remove Brown from his seat on the Armed Services Committee and as the ranking member of the Air Land subcommittee. It's unclear if Warren would seek or receive an Armed Services post, but the message from New England would be clear: If Obama can win a second term, his heretofore quiet liberal base that wants out of the war may finally start to give him an earful. Either way, Massachusetts houses roughly 115,000 defense-related jobs and is one of the top recipients of Pentagon dollars, so the commonwealth is nervously watching the budget fight. From that perspective, the difference between a Warren and Brown vote on the Senate floor come next Congress could not be more stark. A Warren win flips one more key vote in the divided chamber into Obama's column, and for taming defense spending.

What the polls say: Warren is up 3.5 percent according to the RCP average.

Florida, House, 22nd district: Allen West (R) vs. Patrick Murphy (D)

Rep. Allen West ranks 4th from the bottom on the House Armed Services Committee, but he has cast himself as a defense guru in his race against Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy, and the Army veteran could have an impact in the budget battles to come. "He's a good representative of ‘defense Keynesiasm,'" said Laura Peterson, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. West, she said, is a "fiscally conservative tea-partier but also a vet who supports defense spending as a job creator." West is the embodiment of the predicament facing the House Republican caucus: make a budget deal and alienate tea-partiers, or make a deal that alienates the military rank-and-file and veterans. It's hard to see how both of those constituencies end up on the same winning side, when Senate Democrats and the White House refuse to take defense spending off the negotiating table. But West is seen as increasingly influential in the House. "If he sticks around, he's likely to get louder on HASC," Peterson said, "and it shows that brand of conservatism might have more legs generally."

What the polls say: West is up 1 percent over Murphy according to the RCP average.

Maine, Senate: Charlie Summers (R) vs. Cynthia Dill (D) vs. Angus King (I)
There is a three-way fight to replace Olympia Snowe between former Maine secretary of state Charlie Summers, former state senator Cynthia Dill, and former governor Angus King. The race is one to watch, not only because Snowe is one of the few Republican moderates left in the Senate (she has said she is stepping down because of Washington's increasingly toxic partisanship), but because the state is home to Bath Iron Works, owned by General Dynamics, and the 200-year-old Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Since the 1980s, BIW has made DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for the Navy and is currently building two of the service's three massive DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers, giving it enough work for decades. On the other hand, Portsmouth, which refurbishes nuclear attack submarines (one of which was recently set ablaze by a yard employee who apparently wanted to leave work early), barely survived a 2005 BRAC proposal to shutter the base. It remains to be seen how effective Snowe's successor will be at keeping the old shipyard open. Adding another element of uncertainty, King, the likely winner, has refused to say which party he would caucus with. Conventional wisdom says he'll side with the Democrats, but the closer the chamber's Democratic-Republican split, the more power he will have.

What the polls say: King is up 17 points according to the RCP average.

Nebraska, Senate: Bob Kerrey (D) vs. Deb Fischer (R)

As a member of the powerful Appropriations and Armed Services committees, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson has wielded significant clout on defense policy and spending. In particular, he has chaired the Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, where he oversees all manner of nuclear weapons-related policy. His successor in the chairmanship will preside over the subcommittee at a time when the Air Force is looking at how to replace its 40-year old Minuteman III ICBMs and the Navy is aiming to replace its Ohio-class nuclear missile submarines -- all while the Pentagon debates whether to cut a leg of the nuclear triad. While we don't know who will get Nelson's numerous committee assignments, we do know who is running to take over his Senate seat: Former Nebraska senator, governor, and Navy SEAL Bob Kerrey and state senator Deb Fischer. Kerrey spent most of the last decade far from Nebraska as president of The New School in Manhattan while Fischer made a name for herself in Nebraska by opposing bills that would ban smoking in restaurants and other public indoor spaces. If Kerrey wins, he will almost assuredly get a seat on SASC given his military background and former membership on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 Commission. But, according to the polls, that's not likely to happen.

What the polls say: Fischer is up 13 points according to the RCP average.

Missouri, Senate: Claire McCaskill (D) vs. Todd Akin (R)
The Missouri contest garnered national attention for Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comments. But from a defense perspective, the race is more interesting for the impact that a McCaskill loss would have on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where she has been outspoken on accountability and oversight, and on the Homeland Security Committee, where she chairs the subcommittee on contracting oversight. With the billions of dollars spent on defense contracting in war zones and beyond, McCaskill has raised a number of questions about how the money is spent, what it gets the American taxpayer, and how to fix fundamental problems with Pentagon monitoring of critical contracting failures that have helped the cost of war to skyrocket. There are of course plenty of other issues Missouri faces when it comes to defense -- aviation manufacturing being the biggest. But McCaskill's efforts to go after war-profiteering since she was elected in 2007 have been embraced by both Democrats and Republicans.

What the polls say: McCaskill is up 6.3 percent over Akin, according to the RCP average.

New Hampshire, House, 1st district: Carol Shea-Porter (D) vs. Frank Guinta (R)
Can defense issues resurrect a lefty candidate? After she was elected in 2006, Democrats put Shea-Porter on the House Armed Services Committee, thinking that Pentagon oversight and work on behalf of veterans might keep the ardently anti-war activist more in line with her district's politics. It didn't work. Guinta beat her in 2010. Now the two are at it again, and Shea-Porter is using her defense credentials to get her seat back. "I was honored to pass legislation to help active duty soldiers and veterans, families, working men and women, senior citizens, and students," she says on her campaign web site. And she's using the issue to attack Guinta as a tea-partier who has voted for "billions in cuts to veterans programs," according to one ad that Politifact ruled later is "mostly false." Shea-Porter's race could turn on a number of factors, but it's going to come down to the wire: "The polls have been all over the place, which suggests the race really go could either way," according to an analysis on Real Clear Politics.

What the polls say: Nevertheless, Shea-Porter is up by 3 points, according to the RCP average. 

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