President Obama might want to forget all about 2013.
In his second inaugural address in January, the president laid out a confident, liberal vision. As the year ends, none of his objectives have come to pass, his approval ratings are at historic lows and his journey has hit serious potholes on issues from healthcare to national security.
Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs summed it up when he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” this month that 2013 was “no doubt… the worst year of the presidency.”
Obama cannot be held solely culpable for the lack of legislative progress. Republicans played their part in that, too. But, even within the White House, there is a recognition that mistakes were made.
“The benefit of time gives you the insight and removes you from the moment in time when these decisions are made,” one senior administration official said. “And sure we might have done some things a little differently.”
One Democratic strategist who has given advice to the White House describes the first year of the president’s second term in one word: “Listless.”
Where did it all go wrong?
The greatest misstep committed by the White House and its allies threatened to capsize Obama’s signature achievement.
The fiasco of the rollout of the health insurance exchanges dominated the last months of the year.
“There’s no denying it wasn’t our best moment and there’s no way to really size up that apple. We could have had a website that actually worked. But now it’s working. The good news is people are taking a bite out of that apple now and it tastes good,” one senior administration official said.
Democrats outside the White House do not pull punches about how badly the administration messed up even as they, too, hope the worst is over.
“There’s no question the rollout was a disaster,” said strategist Steve McMahon. “The weeks since then have been rocky but there should be smooth water ahead. Once they get this fixed, which is a tech challenge more than anything else, we’ll begin to see the value of the underlying policy differently.”
“I really feel like this thing is on the mend,” another former senior administration official said. “It’s no longer in the intensive care unit.”
But even with the website running smoother than it had been, a string of new polls underline how much damage has been incurred.
A new CNN/ORC International survey out on Monday showed that 35 percent of those surveyed say that they support the Affordable Care Act, a decline of five points since last month. Sixty-two percent are now against the law, up four points.
The NSA and Edward Snowden
Any administration has to deal with a plethora of problems it does not anticipate. One of the biggest to affect the White House this year came in the shape of former CIA employee Edward Snowden and his decision to leak a large number of classified documents.
The White House was caught off guard in its response amid uproar from some traditional allies, including Germany, France and, more recently, Israel.
Senior administration officials acknowledge that they could have been more upfront with the public as the documents surfaced. But they also argue they had to walk a fine line because of the sensitive nature of the issues involved.
“We could have done more explainers about what these programs do and accomplish, maybe,” one senior administration official acknowledged. “But for days, weeks and months, we couldn’t talk about these programs because they were so classified.”
The Snowden affair left the administration under attack from erstwhile allies on the left as well as habitual foes on the right. Some in the administration fear there is more trouble in store.
“NSA will be the one thing that will dog us into 2014 the most,” the senior administration official said. “That’s the one that will stay with us.”
On the world stage, the crisis in Syria raised questions about Obama’s firmness and the United States’ capacity for leadership.
Obama had initially said that the use of chemical weapons by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad would amount to the unacceptable crossing of a red line. But, when video evidence emerged of a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb in August, the United States seemed to dither in its response.
Initial indications that Obama might order a quick attack on Assad’s forces gave way to an abrupt decision to seek Congressional approval. With that vote looking doomed to failure, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the lead role with a plan to disarm Assad of chemical weapons.
The one redeeming factor from the White House’s perspective was that the Putin plan had its genesis in an off-hand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Thank God for John Kerry, the accidental diplomat, because it would’ve been a lose-lose situation for Obama,” the former official said. “He would’ve lost if he’d asked for authorization from Congress and that would have been an embarrassment.”
The year began with the horror of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., still fresh in the public mind. But the emotions felt in the aftermath of that tragedy were not enough to propel new gun control measures across the finish line in Congress.
Critics said the push for gun control was another example of Obama making fine speeches but being less adept at bending Congress to his will.
Obama pulled out all the stops in the gun-control effort. As the debate on Capitol Hill reached its climax, families of the Newtown victims came to Washington to make their case. Advocates of gun control also pointed to polls that showed firm public backing for the introduction of universal background checks.
Most Democrats believe the failure to pass new laws had more to do with the perennially problematic political dynamics around the issue rather than any specific error by Obama.
“It’s a really difficult issue because the Republicans are largely owned by the NRA and the swing Democrats are from districts or states where it’s problematic,” said McMahon. “Newtown is what it made it look possible, but the political reality couldn’t be overcome.”
Relations with Congress
Obama has long been dogged by the charge that he has failed to change Washington’s culture, despite many promises to do so during his first campaign in 2008.
In 2013, the dysfunction of the political system reached new depths. Even some old warhorses such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are falling back on sarcasm.
“When I’m down at the old soldiers’ home and I’m sitting in my rocking chair, I’ll say, ‘Boy, 2013 was a banner year.’” McCain told The New York Times earlier this month, meaning precisely the opposite.
Republicans argue that Obama has been too partisan and too keen to indulge in political gamesmanship. Even some Democrats believe Obama remains too resistant to to the glad-handing and back-slapping that can help legislative business get done.
Others, though, say the blame game is just Washington talk.
“It’s a classic Washington canard: the president isn’t nice enough to Congress therefore Congress isn’t going to do its job,” said McMahon. “If you look at the partisan gridlock that existed in Washington before Obama got here, it’s really no different than it was under President Bush or to some degree at the end of President Clinton’s time. It’s tragic, it’s disappointing — but it’s not new.”