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Obama presidency beset by fits, starts in year 5
Updated: Monday, December 30 2013, 09:36 AM EST
WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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
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,"
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
"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
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
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
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
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 2014 midterm elections give Obama his best opportunity to
rebound. But Democrats, who just weeks ago saw an opportunity to retake
the House after Republicans got blamed for the government shutdown, now
fret about the health care law's ongoing problems and may be content to
just keep control of the Senate.
There's a certain irony in Obama's success depending on Congress, a body with whom he has had a lukewarm partnership.
Lawmakers from both parties say Obama doesn't talk to them much, nor
do his aides. Letters go unanswered. Policies come out of the blue.
Social interactions are few.
Both sides wistfully recall the voluble Clinton, who figured out how
to craft deals with Republicans on welfare reform and other agenda items
after the GOP took control of the House and made big gains in the
Senate two years into his presidency.
Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who worked with Obama when he
was a senator and still considers the president a friend, says flatly:
"He's flunked in terms of relations with Congress."
"If you know him personally, he's a very likable person," says
Coburn. "But it's different than with most other presidents in terms of
having relationships with Congress. ... There's a lack of a personal
Of course, the president's tepid relationship with Congress is hardly
his fault alone. The tea party forces that pulled House Republicans to
the right in recent years made it difficult for the GOP to reach
agreement with Democrats on much of anything, and produced the showdown
over the president's health care law that spawned the government
Obama did attempt to improve relations with Republicans earlier this
year, holding a few dinners with GOP lawmakers. His chief of staff,
Denis McDonough, has been widely praised by Republicans for being a
frequent visitor to Capitol Hill.
But some lawmakers say that's as far as the outreach goes. Sen. John
McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran against Obama in 2008 but has
since tried to work with him on immigration and the budget, said no one
from the White House legislative affairs staff has ever called him or
come to his office just to chat.
What does it matter if Obama doesn't buddy up to his former colleagues?
He needs those relationships to advance his agenda in Congress. And
the strained ties with legislators are emblematic of a broader problem
for Obama rooted in his tendency to keep a tight inner circle.
"Instead of going out and talking to his enemies, making friends and
schmoozing, or banging heads together with them or whatever, you can see
that the man is diffident — deeply, deeply diffident about the kinds of
politicking that are necessary to build consensus," says Nigel
Nicholson, a professor at the London Business School who has written a
book about leadership in which Obama is a frequent topic.
The president has been getting plenty of that kind of advice in
recent weeks. Critics called for a sweeping shakeup of his White House
inner circle. Even his allies called for someone — anyone — to be fired
for the health care failures.
Obama has responded in his typically restrained fashion. No one has
lost a job over the massive health care screw-up, though the White House
hasn't ruled that out. And while the president is doing some minor
shuffling in the West Wing, he's largely bringing in people he already
To critics, the limited staff changes smack of a White House that
doesn't fully understand the depths of its problems. But presidential
friend Ron Kirk said they are indicative of Obama's "fairly
dispassionate temperament," which allows him to hold steady in the face
"He understands that overreacting to any one development in the
moment is not the best way to achieve a long-term and stable objective,"
said Kirk, who served as U.S. trade representative in Obama's first
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.