Have We Forgotten How to Be Americans?

We didn't go over the cliff, but we face 2013 with differing visions of where our nation should go.

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(The Root) -- I don't know about you, but that was a close one! All those weeks and months we heard about "the fiscal cliff," but to get that close to it -- on New Year's Eve, no less -- only to find out that, heck, we can put off this whole "going over the cliff" stuff for another two months. Wow, what a way to ruin a new year.

Will our collective hangover continue now that President Obama has begun his second term and wrangling over the debt ceiling has begun on Capitol Hill? Only time will tell, but it's worth looking back for a moment at how we got here.

As 2012 wound its way into history, 315 million Americans found themselves standing on the precipice of a new year, realizing that in many ways the so-called fiscal cliff was the least of our nation's problems.

Think about the big triumphs and tragedies of 2012. The London Summer Olympic Games were a great boost to America's pride and morale. Who could forget American swimmer Michael Phelps (a Marylander!) becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time?

Contrast that with a terrible low: the murder of the innocents in Newtown, Conn., last December and the ensuing "debate" about gun laws, the Constitution and the NRA. Also, while 2012 saw the lowest murder rate in modern history (something promising and positive), by year's end, the death toll by gun violence hit new highs in the city of Chicago, striking a discordant chord in our nation's psyche.

Another painful and equally troubling moment came with the death of our U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans at the hands of Islamic terrorists. Despite the continuing questions about the Obama administration's knowledge of the security lapses and the failure to bring any of the killers to justice, the families of the victims, along with the American people, would be treated to more political carping, finger wagging at U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and not enough answers -- even after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's testimony to senators on Wednesday.  

There was, of course, the 2012 presidential campaign. But that wasn't just about Barack Obama winning re-election or Mitt Romney losing. It wasn't just about what the defeated GOP candidate should have done to change the result. And it wasn't just about Republicans losing votes among white, blue-collar voters or Hispanic Americans.

The election highlighted the clash between two views of America. One view champions the philosophy of limited constitutional government and fiscal responsibility that fuels a thriving, job-creating, private-enterprise system. The other promotes a philosophy of expanding government programs and the agencies necessary to run them, plus higher taxes and spending policies that grow government and debt while overregulating the private sector.

Another important aspect of this clash is cultural, underscored by emerging and still-changing views on same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration, right-to-work laws, collective bargaining and a host of issues that will ultimately transform the very character of the nation.

Americans are also witnessing a historic nationalization of their health care system. Last summer a 5-to-4 Supreme Court majority, to the surprise of many (especially conservatives), ruled that President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") was constitutional, and the president's re-election eliminated any chance that the law would be repealed.