His second inaugural address over, Barack Obama paused as he strode from the podium last January, turning back for one last glance across the supportive throng on the National Mall.
“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 U.S. 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. Obama’s health care law, his signature achievement, seemed poised to become reality.
Obama had campaigned on the hope that a second term would bring in a new spirit of compromise after years of partisan rancor. Instead, great expectations disappeared in fumbles and failures.
In 2013, Obama’s critics doubled down. Fractured Republicans, swore off compromise. The president’s outreach to Congress was lacking or at times even 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 a proposed White House state dinner, Germany’s Angela Merkel incensed that her cellphone calls had been intercepted. The president’s 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 only small-bore budget deal.
White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri called it a year of “fits and starts” for the president — and predicted better days ahead.
Yet Obama’s agenda of gun control, immigration reform, a grand budget bargain 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.
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.
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 might have just 18 months, perhaps as little as a year, to accomplish big domestic priorities.
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 press for an immigration overhaul and float the possibility of a big budget deal.
Each of those efforts failed and Obama quickly found himself consumed by 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, including the chemical weapons crisis in Syria.
But 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 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.
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.
Lawmakers from both parties say Obama doesn’t talk to them much, nor do his aides. Both sides wistfully recall the voluble Clinton, who figured out how to craft deals with Republicans on welfare reform and other agenda.
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.”
Of course, the president’s tepid relationship with Congress is hardly his fault alone. The forces that pulled House Republicans to the right made it difficult for the GOP to reach agreement with Democrats on much of anything.
What does it matter if Obama doesn’t buddy up to his former colleagues?
“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.
The president has been getting plenty of that kind of advice in recent weeks. Critics called for a sweeping shake-up of his White House inner circle.
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 reshuffling, he’s largely bringing in people he already knows.
To critics, the limited staff changes smack of a White House that doesn’t fully understand the depths of its problems.
But to presidential friend Ron Kirk said they are indicative of Obama’s “fairly dispassionate temperament.”
“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.
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, expand access to early childhood education, and look to implement key climate changes.
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.
“We all wear thin with the American people after a while,” says Republican Senator John McCain, though he warns against counting out any president with three years left to govern, especially Obama.
“To count a man of that talent out at this point in time in his administration would be a huge mistake,” he says.