How Obama Blew the Entire Last Year

In the 12 months since his reelection, the president has achieved far less than he expected and suffered one mishap after another.

Then and now: Thrill of victory, agony of gridlock.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Nov. 7, 2013, 4 p.m.

It doesn’t get much bet­ter than the ex­hil­ar­a­tion Barack Obama felt when he looked out at the hun­dreds of sup­port­ers packed in­to Mc­Cormick Place at 12:38 on the morn­ing of Nov. 7, 2012. There he was, in his ho­met­own of Chica­go, flushed with vic­tory, only the 15th in­cum­bent ever reelec­ted to a second pres­id­en­tial term. It didn’t seem at all boast­ful when he pro­claimed to cheers that the na­tion had just “voted for ac­tion, not polit­ics as usu­al.”

Now, a year later, here he is, in Wash­ing­ton, sobered by a suc­ces­sion of set­backs and no longer quite so sure that he is see­ing any­thing but polit­ics as usu­al. For the pres­id­ent, it has been a very tough year. Al­most noth­ing that Obama pub­licly pre­dicted would fol­low his reelec­tion has come to pass. He had op­tim­ist­ic­ally pro­claimed in a Rolling Stone in­ter­view that his vic­tory “might break the fever” with Re­pub­lic­ans who had de­clared their top goal was to deny him a second term. With him nev­er again ap­pear­ing on a bal­lot, he said then, his hope was that Re­pub­lic­ans “might say to them­selves, ‘You know what? We’ve lost our way here. We need to re­fo­cus on try­ing to get things done for the Amer­ic­an people.’ “

When CN­BC’s John Har­wood re­minded Obama of that state­ment in a re­cent in­ter­view, the pres­id­ent clung to the hope that “the ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans around the coun­try” want to work with him. But he ac­know­ledged that doesn’t seem to in­clude Re­pub­lic­ans in Wash­ing­ton. Claim­ing, “I have bent over back­wards to work with the Re­pub­lic­an Party,” he ad­ded, “Am I ex­as­per­ated? Ab­so­lutely, I’m ex­as­per­ated.”

This, after all, is a pres­id­ent who thought he would be able to avoid most second-term traps. In­stead, Obama has suffered through one of the most daunt­ing rol­louts ever for the second half of a pres­id­ency. His troubles began less than 24 hours after his vic­tory speech, when he learned that CIA Dir­ect­or Dav­id Pet­raeus was quit­ting be­cause of an ex­tramar­it­al af­fair. Be­fore the month was out, the Re­pub­lic­an-led in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to Benghazi gained steam, with the con­tro­versy claim­ing its biggest vic­tim only five weeks after the elec­tion when Susan Rice with­drew her name from con­sid­er­a­tion for sec­ret­ary of State.

While this was de­vel­op­ing, Obama was en­gaged in fisc­al-cliff battles with Re­pub­lic­ans, se­cur­ing a vic­tory on high­er taxes for the wealth­i­est Amer­ic­ans but al­low­ing the GOP to lock in the bulk of the Bush-era tax cuts. And, as a back­drop to the Wash­ing­ton in­fight­ing, on the day after Rice’s with­draw­al, a gun­man shocked the na­tion by killing 20 chil­dren and six adults at an ele­ment­ary school in New­town, Conn.

The new year brought more bad news for the pres­id­ent. In­stead of go­ing for im­mig­ra­tion re­form as his top le­gis­lat­ive pri­or­ity, he squandered much of his polit­ic­al cap­it­al on a doomed ef­fort to en­act gun re­stric­tions. In March and April, House Re­pub­lic­ans battered him on Benghazi. In May, he learned that the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice had in­ap­pro­pri­ately mon­itored con­ser­vat­ive groups, put­ting him on the de­fens­ive. At the same time, he came un­der fire for Justice De­part­ment in­vest­ig­a­tions of journ­al­ists.

In June, Ed­ward Snowden star­ted leak­ing highly sens­it­ive and em­bar­rass­ing Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency doc­u­ments. By Ju­ly, Snowden was de­mand­ing asylum in Rus­sia, lead­ing Obama to can­cel a planned sum­mit with Vladi­mir Putin at the pre­cise time he was look­ing to the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent to bail him out of a no-win battle with Con­gress over Syr­ia. It was also in June that the White House had to ac­know­ledge that Syr­ia had crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chem­ic­al weapons. That led to a re­quest to use mil­it­ary force that seemed doomed be­fore Putin stepped in.

Obama’s an­nus hor­rib­il­is wasn’t over, of course. Still to come was the badly botched rol­lout of the Af­ford­able Care Act, a mess still await­ing a fix. The res­ult, on the one-year an­niversary of his reelec­tion, is that Obama finds him­self near a per­son­al low point in his ap­prov­al rat­ings. Gal­lup’s daily track­ing poll re­leased Tues­day had him at 39 per­cent ap­prov­al, only 1 point above his worst show­ing, in Oc­to­ber 2011. In the past 60 years, only Richard Nix­on (29 per­cent) and George W. Bush (38 per­cent) had lower rat­ings a year after their reelec­tion. (Ron­ald Re­agan was at 64 per­cent, Bill Clin­ton at 60, and Dwight Eis­en­hower at 58.)

Some of this is just bad luck. But some of Obama’s dif­fi­culties with Con­gress go back to the cam­paign he con­duc­ted in 2012 and were pre­dicted a year ago by Wil­li­am Gal­ston, Clin­ton’s top do­mest­ic-policy ad­viser in his first term. Writ­ing just days be­fore the elec­tion, Gal­ston warned that Obama would “enter his second term hold­ing a re­l­at­ively weak hand.” He lamen­ted that Obama was more fo­cused on tear­ing down his rival than build­ing a man­date for ac­tion in the second term. Today, Gal­ston asks Na­tion­al Journ­al, “What kind of for­ward thrust did the pres­id­ent get out of the 2012 cam­paign?” The an­swer, he says, is “al­most noth­ing.” And that, he adds, al­lows side con­tro­ver­sies to loom lar­ger. “The ab­sence of a clearly etched and pub­licly sup­por­ted second-term agenda cre­ates a kind of polit­ic­al va­cu­um in­to which prob­lems can surge.”

Add to that those House Re­pub­lic­ans who think their man­date for ob­struc­tion trumps the pres­id­ent’s man­date. “In a sense, they don’t ac­cept the res­ults of the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion,” says Bill Schneider of the mod­er­ate Demo­crat­ic group Third Way. “To them, it is still Novem­ber 2010 and they are still op­er­at­ing on that man­date.” Giv­en that GOP mind-set, Schneider says, it was “a bit na­ive” of Obama to think that his win would “break the fever.” Com­bine that na­iv­ete with bad luck, and there isn’t much doubt that the ex­hil­ar­a­tion of Mc­Cormick Place is just a dis­tant memory.

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