WASHINGTON — “Has this been the worst year of your presidency?”
It was a heck of a way for President Obama to wrap up 2013. In asking the question at the president’s year-end news conference, Julie Pace of The Associated Press captured several things at once: the reality of a genuinely disappointing year for Obama; a mood of skepticism in the media about him; the inevitability of Beltway scorekeeping; and the personalization of nearly everything in politics.
Obama, for good reason, avoided a direct answer. But I’d suggest that 2013 was not his worst year. That distinction should be reserved for 2011, when the president emerged from the summer looking weak after protracted negotiations with House Republicans over a debt-ceiling increase.
Obama was operating from a position of fear. Faced with a GOP buoyed by its 2010 election victories and still intoxicated by insurrectionary Tea Party spirits, he believed Republicans might well be willing to pull the nation’s financial house down by refusing to raise the debt limit. This forced him to accept the long-term budget cuts in the “sequester” that to this day severely constrain his ability to innovate in policy — and largely lock in place a fiscal policy that’s holding back the economic recovery.
The year 2013 was better than that. It’s true that the health care website fiasco threatened to engulf Obama’s signature achievement. And Obamacare will undergo new tests in the coming year. The site’s “back end” problems in connecting with insurance companies could create more bad news in January as some who thought they had bought policies discover that their purchases failed to go through.
But the website’s troubles were fixable, and it’s remarkable that the repair has gone as quickly as it has. Next year, millions who were never insured will have purchased plans on the exchanges or received coverage through the Medicaid expansion. Republicans are quite confident that Obamacare will still be unpopular come next fall’s elections. Obama has at least a fighting chance to prove them wrong.
Moreover, something else happened this year that may, over time, prove far more important than the great website flop. In 2013, the Tea Party began to decline in both real and perceived power, and Republicans began a slow retreat from the politics of absolutism.
In this fall’s budget fight, Obama did not blink and Democrats did not break ranks when House Speaker John Boehner bowed to Tea Party pressure to shut down the government. The public was furious. Republicans plummeted in the polls and eventually gave in.