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President Obama's Rocky Year Falls Far Short Of Ambitions

By many standards, President Obama had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
By many standards, President Obama had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.
President Obama's Rocky Year Falls Far Short Of Ambitions

President Obama heads to Hawaii on Friday. He goes there for Christmas every year and always talks about how good it is to get away from Washington. This year, that's likely to be especially true.

It's been a rough year for the president, starting with the very first hours of 2013.

One year ago, when the ball dropped on Times Square and people sang "Auld Lang Syne," Obama was supposed to be in Honolulu. Instead, he was in Washington as the country went over the so-called fiscal cliff.

Late at night on Jan. 1, he walked into the White House briefing room to announce a deal and express a hope for 2013. You could even call it a New Year's resolution: "A little bit less drama. A little less brinkmanship. Not scare the heck out of folks quite as much."

In literature, that would be called foreshadowing. In politics, it was just a rocky start to a rocky year.

Three weeks later, the White House saw Obama's second inauguration as an opportunity for a new start. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded the National Mall. Obama's re-election had left him with a two-thirds approval rating. And the president had every reason to believe the start of the second term would be productive.

"A decade of war is now ending," he said, declaring triumphant victory over challenges foreign and domestic, and "an economic recovery has begun."

In lofty, poetic language, Obama laid out ambitious goals for the year ahead.

On immigration: "Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity."

And on guns: "Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm."

On that cold January day, a sweeping immigration overhaul seemed possible. And after the murder of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a month earlier, even gun control felt within reach.

Failed Follow-Ups

Within a few months, Obama's soaring rhetoric crashed. An ambitious agenda for gun control got whittled down to a narrow expansion of background checks. But even with overwhelming public support, that modest proposal fell to a Senate filibuster in April.

Obama was furious. "The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill," he said in an emotional event at the White House Rose Garden.

The president promised to continue fighting, but that battle was lost. Next, it was on to immigration.

In the presidential election, Republicans had won only a quarter of the Latino vote. They seemed eager to expand the party's appeal. And in June, a sweeping immigration bill did pass the Senate, 68 to 32. Then, in the House, Speaker John Boehner said no.

"The House does not intend to take up the Senate bill. The House is going to do its own job on developing an immigration bill," announced Boehner, the Ohio Republican.

The House never took any action on immigration, meaning the president's second major domestic initiative sputtered out.

Obama gave speeches on job creation, infrastructure investment, tax reform. None of them went anywhere.

Then, a bomb dropped in the British daily newspaper The Guardian. Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor for the National Security Agency, had fled the U.S. with untold numbers of classified documents. He began revealing some of America's most closely held secrets, one after another.

American prosecutors indicted him for espionage. Their inability to bring him to justice only made the Obama team look more impotent. The leaker slipped from Hong Kong to Russia, where Moscow openly defied Washington's request to hand him over.

From Europe to Latin America, U.S. allies were furious to learn that they were caught in the American spying dragnet. German President Angela Merkel was livid that American spies had tapped her cellphone. "Obviously words will not be sufficient," she said. "Trust needs to be rebuilt."

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff raged in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, "Meddling in such a manner in the life and affairs of other countries is a breach of international law." Soon after that, Rousseff canceled a state dinner in Washington.

Struggles To Regain Ground

In domestic and foreign affairs, Obama seemed to be in reactive mode.

After Syria used chemical weapons, Obama tried to seize the reins, leading an international run-up to a military strike on Syrian President Bashar Assad. But then Britain's Parliament voted against an attack, despite Prime Minister David Cameron's pleading on behalf of Obama.

"No one could in any way describe him as a president who wants to involve America in more wars in the Middle East," Cameron told Parliament, "but he profoundly believes an important red line has been crossed in an appalling way."

Despite the surprising "no" vote in Britain, Obama seemed undeterred. He announced that he would seek approval from Congress for a strike on Syria. With little domestic support, he soon abandoned that plan.

By this point, Republicans were feeling empowered. They refused to fund the federal government and raise the debt ceiling, demanding that Obama gut the health care law. They expected a weakened Obama to cave. But the president had had this fight with Republicans before. And this time, on this issue, he vowed not to give in.

"We can't make extortion routine, as part of our democracy," Obama insisted in a White House news conference. "Democracy doesn't function this way."

The partial government shutdown ended after two weeks, in mid-October. And for a moment, it looked like Obama could regain the ground he'd lost over the year. Americans blamed Republicans for the shutdown. Obama came off looking like the adult in the room.

But it wasn't a clean win. The president skipped some important international trade meetings, further undermining global confidence in the U.S. And as Obama himself predicted, the self-inflicted wound of the shutdown undermined a belief that government can do good things.

Then came HealthCare.gov. The unusable website embodied every stereotype of government incompetence. Millions of people were unable to sign up for health coverage. Millions of others were told they'd lose their insurance, despite Obama's repeated promises to the contrary.

"I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general," said a contrite Obama in November.

The health law was Obama's top domestic priority — a hard-won achievement that barely made it through Congress and the Supreme Court. And unlike the other setbacks this year, Obama had nobody to blame for the botched rollout but his own team. "That's on us," he said. "That's on me. And that's why I'm trying to fix it."

Now, at the end of the year, Congress has managed to pass a small-scale budget deal. Wednesday's NSA report could provide a way out of the spying scandal. And the health care website appears functional.

Obama can point to a few international breakthroughs, too: a short-term nuclear deal with Iran; the restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks; Syria giving up its chemical weapons.

Still, in the big picture, 2013 was a terrible year for Obama. No wonder this year he followed the old advice about having a friend in Washington: He got another dog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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