Obama’s Good Year

Bill Scher

The pundit consensus is that 2013 has been President Obama’s worst year. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pegs the “scandals” and “self-inflicted wounds” for “squandering” his chance for “the passage of a broad gun-control measure, an immigration reform package, and a series of bills addressing the country’s debt and spending issues.”

But the pundits’ conclusions, colored by media coverage more than results, miss the big picture.

No doubt 2013 was a grind. Yet despite the headwinds from the fractious Republican House and the major distraction of the Snowden leaks, Obama secured significant policy achievements and battled naysayers to keep historic initiatives on track.

Here’s what Obama won in 2013:

* The most progressive tax code since 1979 after starting the year with the “fiscal cliff” deal.

* Advancement of gay rights with the Supreme Court win striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and pressuring House Republicans to accept an expanded Violence Against Women Act.

* The end of budgeting via hostage negotiations. Obama held the line and broke the GOP over the shutdown. Sure, Republicans may be crazy enough to try it again as the next debt limit approaches. But after taking a political pounding in October, and having already agreed to budget caps for the next two years, Republicans would have zero leverage in such a confrontation.

* Nominees in place at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, National Labor Relations Board and D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Having worked with Senate leaders to end the relentless GOP obstruction, Obama now has people in place who can execute and extend his financial and labor reforms, and he has ended conservative dominance in the second-most power court in the country.

* Drug sentencing reform. Building on the often overlooked success of the 2010 law which reduced the disparity between crack and cocaine punishments, the Justice Department launched an initiative to work around mandatory sentencing laws for low-level offenders, and Obama recently commuted the sentences of some crack offenders who were punished before the 2010 law was signed. These efforts to reduce the prison population have all been handled without backlash, despite the political risks involved.

* Breakthrough with Iran. While the nuclear deal is temporary, it sets the stage for a broader thawing of relations which could reshape and pacify the Middle East. And so far, the White House is holding back skeptical Senate Democrats from undermining the deal with a new threat of sanctions.

That’s a pretty good year.

Meanwhile, Cillizza harps on the “scandals” of the IRS and Benghazi. But these were phony scandals that the Administration debunked with the facts.

The Snowden leaks have had more of an ongoing impact, but it is less a “scandal” than a controversial debate, with the White House able to convince Congress not to scale back NSA authority without more deliberation. You may agree or disagree with the policy, but as it stands, the President still has his policy.

Cillizza cites the failure to pass gun control as a major blow. But there is a reason why gun control was never a part of Obama’s 2008 or 2012 presidential campaigns, and in turn, was never planned to be a major agenda item — it is an extraordinarily complicated issue for Democrats trying to win in redder states. Even what was being pursued this year was limited in scope and far from a guaranteed panacea to mass shootings. Was it a loss? Sure. But a relatively minor one, not a cataclysmic blow to his presidency.

Cillizza also treats the lack of “a series of bills addressing the country’s debt and spending issues” as a major defeat. But why? Yes, the president did not get the “grand bargain” of increased tax revenue for entitlement reform (to the relief of many liberals). But as I noted earlier in the year, the President also made clear he did not see such a bargain as vital for America’s future or for his historical legacy.

Instead, Obama made a decision to invest his political capital to break the GOP habit of budget by hostage-taking, not to break the Democrats to swallow Social Security cuts without significant tax increases on the wealthy. And his strategic choice paid off.

Of course the HealthCare.gov rollout looms large in any “worst year” summation. But as repeatedly predicted by myself and others, early hiccups in new government programs are typical and temporary. The ship is being righted, and the law is in no danger of being scrapped.

Finally, the lack of immigration reform this year absolutely should not be seen as a failure. If anything, credit should go to Obama for keeping the effort on track when so many have tried to deplete momentum by pronouncing the bill dead.

As I recently wrote in The Week:

…instead of immigration, the fall season gave us the Syrian crisis, the government shutdown, and the HealthCare.gov botch, all of which demanded media attention that deprived immigration activists of the ability to maximize grassroots pressure. Momentum appeared to stall. The Hill even ran a two-part series in mid-November called “How Immigration Died.”

But a funny thing happened two weeks after that obituary: President Obama publicly accepted Boehner’s position that the House pass a series of piecemeal immigration bills instead of a single comprehensive bill like the Senate’s. Obama removed a political roadblock, putting the burden on Boehner to either follow through on his own pledge or shoulder all the political consequences for failure.

A few days later, Boehner surprised Washington by hiring a new immigration policy aide from the Bipartisan Policy Center who supports what Democrats insist on but what many Republicans resist: A pathway to citizenship for the currently undocumented.

[And the latest budget deal] is another signal that congressional leaders are ready to close the curtains on the budget kabuki and bring immigration back to center stage.

A law that ends the underground economy would be a historic legislative achievement, made all the more impressive if it is notched in a second-term when presidencies often stall out. It may be premature to call immigration a win, but is also premature to call it a loss, and to say Obama lost a year when it was never plausible for such hot-button legislation to be rammed through the House.

I would not be surprised to learn that Obama didn’t enjoy himself all that much this year. He is probably plenty exasperated with regularly putting out fires and tangling with the conservative House. But presidents often have to fight uphill to get what they can. Far from being a lost year, it’s another year of Obama racking up accomplishments, moving the ball forward and proving the cynics wrong.

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