Earlier this month, a grim-faced President Obama held a news conference that was sorely lacking in holiday cheer. It's hard to get in the spirit of things when the first question is this: "Has this been the worst year of your presidency?"
Obama dismissed the claim — but it wasn't hard to see where the reporter was coming from. Obama's approval rating recently fell to 41 percent. Democrats argue that Obama had some wins this year — economic growth, the recent bipartisan budget deal in the wake of a government shutdown that hurt Republicans, and foreign policy achievements in Iran and Syria — but thanks to brutal opposition from Republicans in Congress, many of Obama's 2013 promises tanked.
However, the year's biggest wound was largely self-inflicted. While Obama was able to keep the Affordable Care Act intact after the GOP's quixotic effort to defund it, the troubled rollout of Healthcare.gov in October was an astonishing setback for a White House that has long recognized the singular importance of making the law work. Millions of Americans were also confused when their existing insurance plans were canceled (even if that was because many of those plans were "terrible," according to Mother Jones), forcing the administration to scramble for a quick solution. While the website now appears to be on the mend, as Ezra Klein noted in the Washington Post, "HealthCare.gov's problems gave people who wanted to believe ObamaCare would fail license to be much more certain than they'd been before."
But better health care was hardly the only ambition that Obama had for 2013. During his State of the Union address in February, he said, "Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away." The Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill in June, but House Republicans stonewalled that bill. "We have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in November. As of late December, Obama was still urging the House to act.
Congress also blocked Obama on new gun control laws, another promise he made in his February address, as America reeled from the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In April, the Senate failed to pass a number of gun reform measures, ranging from an assault weapons ban to stronger background checks. Obama did launch a number of executive orders to strengthen gun control, and 21 states and Washington, D.C., independently made it harder to own guns. But almost twice as many gun rights measures passed at the state level in 2013, and the National Rifle Association, which lobbied hard against reforms, emerged a big winner in 2013.
This year was also supposed to be the year the United States became a leader on climate change reform. "If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will," Obama said in February. Obama issued a detailed action plan in June, but experts noted that the executive actions have been dampened by Congress, which once again failed to pass any meaningful climate legislation. And some progressives were disillusioned by many of Obama's environmental policies this year. "By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet's biggest oil producer and Russia as the world's biggest producer of oil and gas combined," wrote Bill McKibben at Rolling Stone. "We are... a global-warming machine."
A roundup of Obama's sorry year wouldn't be complete without giving a shout-out to the rolling NSA scandal, which has dogged the administration for months and weakened the president's liberal support. Then there's the fact that the Supreme Court overturned a major provision of the Voting Rights Act in June, against recommendations from the administration. Even Obama's nuclear deal with Iran — which has been applauded as historic — is already being targeted by GOP senators, who are attempting to shoot holes through the deal via legislation, according to the Huffington Post.
Still, Obama remains optimistic for 2014. "We’re poised to do really good things," he said in the December press conference. He also joked that the criticism is nothing new: "This room has probably recorded at least 15 near-death experiences," the president said.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- This is what happens when Republicans actually enact their radical agenda
- How I dug myself out of debt — and stayed that way
- Russia is stealthily threatening America with nuclear war
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 10 things you need to know today: September 18, 2014
- Why so many Christians won't back down on gay marriage
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- An independent Scotland will need its own army, navy, and air force — and that could be a problem
- The European Union was supposed to end nationalism. It gave it new life instead.
Subscribe to the Week