Presidency beset by fits, starts in ’13
WASHINGTON — It was a moment for Barack Obama to savor.
His second inaugural address over, Obama paused as he strode from the podium last January, turning back for one last glance across the expanse of the National Mall, where a supportive throng stood in the winter chill to witness the launch of his new term.
“I want to take a look, one more time,” Obama said quietly. “I’m not going to see this again.”
There was so much Obama could not — or did not — see then, as he opened his second term with a confident call to arms and an expansive liberal agenda.
He’d never heard of Edward Snowden, who would lay bare the government’s massive surveillance program. Large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria was only a threat. A government shutdown and second debt crisis seemed improbable. His health care law, the signature achievement of his presidency, seemed poised to make the leap from theory to reality.
Obama had campaigned for re-election on the hope that a second term would bring with it a new spirit of compromise after years of partisan rancor on Capitol Hill.
“My expectation is that there will be some popping of the blister after this election, because it will have been such a stark choice,” he’d said.
Instead, great expectations disappeared in fumbles and failures.
Obama’s critics doubled down. Fractured Republicans, tugged to the right by the tea party, swore off compromise. The president’s outreach to Congress was somewhere between lacking and non-existent. Obama’s team dropped the ball — calamitously — on his health care law. Snowden’s revelations had Democrats and Republicans alike calling for tighter surveillance rules. Foreign leaders were in a huff — Brazil’s president snubbing the offer of a White House state dinner, Germany’s Angela Merkel incensed that her cell phone calls had been intercepted. The president’s misplaced pledge that people who liked their health plans would be able to keep them ran into a harsh reality as millions saw their coverage canceled.
The year ended with a small-bore budget deal that was welcomed as breath of fresh air, a telling sign of how wildly things had veered off course in 2013.
White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri called it a year of “fits and starts” for the president — and predicted better days ahead.
“We’ll probably come out of 2013 in better shape in terms of Congress and the White House being able to function together,” she said.
Yet Obama’s agenda of gun control, immigration reform, a grand budget bargain and more sits unfulfilled. Obama’s job approval and personal favorability ratings are near the lowest point of his presidency, with increasing numbers of Americans saying they no longer consider him to be honest or trustworthy. Abroad, too, positive views of Obama have slipped, with confidence in him doing the right thing in world affairs dropping.
The mantra for the Obama White House has always been to take the long view. Officials scoff at the “who’s up, who’s down” churn of Washington’s chattering class and recall with glee Obama’s ability to rebound from moments in his first term when his presidency was declared in peril.
But as Obama embarked on his second term, some of his closest outside advisers warned him that the next four years would have to be different: He was operating on a shorter leash, and might have just 18 months, perhaps as little as a year, to accomplish big domestic priorities.
All Obama needed to do was look to his predecessors to see how quickly trouble can consume a second term. Richard Nixon resigned. Ronald Reagan got ensnarled in the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky. And George W. Bush lost the public’s trust through his botched handling of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and the unpopular Iraq War.
Obama’s team thought it had a strategy for overcoming the second-term curse. They would make a quick play for stricter gun control measures, then capitalize on the GOP’s post-election anxiety by pressing for an immigration overhaul and floating the possibility of a big budget deal.
Each of those efforts failed and Obama quickly found himself consumed by an unending series of distractions.
Some were fleeting, like the revelations that the Internal Revenue Service was applying extra scrutiny to conservative groups. But others threatened long-term damage to his presidency: the National Security Agency disclosures and the disastrous rollout of the “Obamacare” health law.
Some events were beyond Obama’s control and his frustration with them was evident when he fumed in September, during the crisis over Syria: “I would much rather spend my time talking about how to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education than I would spending time thinking about how I can prevent 3- and 4-year-olds from being subjected to chemical weapons and nerve gas.”
But presidents don’t get to pick their crises. And plenty of Obama’s woes were of his own making, raising questions about his competence and management of the White House.
How could he not have known that his government was spying on the private communications of friendly world leaders? Why didn’t he know his health care website wouldn’t work? How could he have promised over and over again that Americans could keep their health insurance if they liked it when his own advisers knew it wasn’t that simple?
As a result, the president is ending his fifth year in office in a “defensive crouch,” says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, and may have to be content with simply protecting his health care law and other Democratic-backed programs that Republicans are eager to repeal.
At this point, says Brinkley, “it’s really a firewall presidency.”
The president’s agenda for his sixth year in office is a stark reminder of how little he accomplished in 2013.
Obama plans to make another run at immigration reform. He’ll seek to increase the minimum wage and expand access to early childhood education, proposals he first outlined in his 2013 State of the Union address. And he’ll look to implement key elements of the climate change speech he delivered earlier this year, many of which are stagnant.
Foreign policy could be an oasis for the struggling second-term president. With Russia’s help, he turned his public indecision over attacking Syria into an unexpected agreement to strip President Bashar Assad of his chemical weapons, though the success of the effort won’t be known for some time and the civil war in Syria rages on. Obama also authorized daring secret negotiations with Iran, resulting in an interim nuclear agreement. But even the president says the prospects of getting a final deal are only 50-50.
In a year-end news conference, the president optimistically predicted that 2014 would be “a breakthrough year for America.”
But Obama’s dismal standings in the polls suggest he can’t count on a public groundswell to propel his agenda. The heady days of 2009 when aides boasted of Obama as “the best brand on earth” are long gone.
“We all wear thin with the American people after a while,” says McCain, though he warns against counting out any president with three years left to govern — particularly this one.
“To count a man of that talent out at this point in time in his administration would be a huge mistake,” he says.
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