THE BLOG

An Odd, Intriguing Year Ahead

01/06/2014 07:52 pm ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014

President Barack Obama's vacation schedule reflected the reality of this holiday season in which Christmas and New Year's Day each fell upon a Wednesday, with long weekends bleeding into long weekends. Now he's back and so is the working new year, at last functionally upon us, which will be odd and intriguing.

Obama will try to recover from his worst year yet, when -- rocked by the Snowden revelations about massive secret NSA surveillance and rolled by the roll-out of the national health care program -- he struggled to stay up with events much less ahead of the curve of change.

He's not on the ballot again and the race to succeed him is in 2016, but midterm elections will be important for his remaining hopes to make a difference. For now, it looks as though both houses of Congress will stay in the hands of opposing political parties. But the cobbled together budget deal suggests that there may be a modicum of cooperation on tap, if only to avoid the total global embarrassment that the federal government became last year.

Obama pursued a seemingly veering course in geopolitics last year. But even though just a few months ago, wars with Syria and Iran seemed set for the docket, now both are on the back burner with the Asia-Pacific Pivot -- in which the US slowly shifts focus from its post-9/11 over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific and nascent superpower China -- continuing on course.

But a major sporting event could provide an early wild card.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, begin in a month. It's a major showcase for Russia's resurgence as a global power and a top priority for Russian President Vladimir Putin, named by a number of media outlets as the world's most powerful leader last year in the wake of imposing his will on a Syria compromise when America seemed poised to strike.

Islamic jihadists threaten to disrupt the Sochi Olympics in order to highlight their vitality and deal a blow to Putin, who crushed Chechen separatists and engaged in bloody crackdowns in the Caucasus region. To make their point, they staged two bombings last month in Volgograd, killing 34 people.

The Olympics are often used to signal an ascendance on the world stage, think the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, or a resurgence on the world stage, with Sochi this year and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

But a symbolic Olympic resurgence can go horribly wrong as with the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, when Palestinian terrorists massacred 11 Israeli athletes after a German rescue mission failed.

Putin, who rose to power as Russia's intelligence chief, will be under great pressure to prevent any such disasters.

California elections will be lightweight, with Governor Jerry Brown -- who has not yet announced, but so what? -- a shoo-in for reelection. Now there's a presidential buzz about him, even though he would be the oldest president ever elected in the event he won. More on this below.

Brown should lead another Democratic sweep of statewide offices, as well as renewed strong Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature. (With just one caveat: Former Pete Wilson and John McCain communications honcho Dan Schnur, now director of the USC Unruh Institute of Politics, became an independent several years ago and is running as such for secretary of state, the ministerial office in charge of elections and some political oversight. This will be an interesting test of whether a more moderate Republican who becomes an independent before running -- unlike ex-GOP rising star and unsuccessful San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher -- can take advantage of the state's new open primary system. Schnur's campaign is being co-managed by a name Democrat and a name Republican.)

As for the Republicans per se, their hope is only to avert having less than one-third in each house, which they need to block tax hikes. That struggle will devolve into a few legislative district races, which can be covered by beat reporters and legislative specialists.

But while this year's California and national elections may not be especially interesting, the preliminary positioning for the 2016 presidential race is more interesting.

The Republicans as always are interesting, though I'm struck by the weakness of the Republican field, notwithstanding the widespread contention that it is supposed to be better than that of 2012.

As for the Democrats, it's all about Hillary Clinton. Or is it?

How strong is the former secretary of state and first lady?

Her popularity ebbed last year amidst some doubts about her tenure as secretary of state, notably the ongoing mystery of the Benghazi disaster and her not always artful answers to hostile questions about it.

Still, she's been chilling, freezing the field. And now she appears to be ramping up more, with shadow campaigns emerging, a book about her time as America's top diplomat coming out later in the summer, a subsequent book tour, and campaigning for Democratic candidates around the country.

Which may not be stopping Vice President Joe Biden, who in a not unrelated move may be taking over leadership on the Asia-Pacific Pivot. He was the man on the spot recently meeting with the top leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea during the East China Sea crisis and called the tune on the surprise choice of Montana Senator Max Baucus as the new ambassador to China, problematic in some ways and topic for later discussion.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to be making no moves and other "new generation" potentials such as Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, an old Hart for President colleague, have yet to emerge, or, more to the point, find a hook.

The only reason Governor Jerry Brown hasn't been in the presidential conversation all along is because of his age. He turns 76 on April 7. In California, he's known as a very vigorous and provocative presence. Had he not inherited the hairline of his dad, the legendary Governor Pat Brown, he could easily pass as a much younger man.

But even though people are doing wildly energetic things at much later ages these days, being in one's 70s still seems old in presidential politics. And it's certainly not a forgiving office.

Clinton's presidential husband Bill aged visibly in office and Clinton herself had several health challenges as secretary of state, including a worrisome blood clot near her brain.

So why not a guy in his 70s who talks like he's in his 40s and can do more pull-ups than I can? Quite a few media outlets are touting Brown, riding high on something of a California comeback, as a potential candidate.

I delved into that just before Christmas in "Jerry Brown's Thankful Holiday Season."

This month, I will do a two-part series on Brown as a presidential candidate.

In "Jerry Brown for President 4.0, Part I: The Way We Were," I'll look at his 1976, 1980, and 1992 candidacies.

In "Jerry Brown for President 4.0, Part II: The Shape of Things To Come?," I'll look at potential scenarios. And their pitfalls.

One thing I will say right now that Brown certainly should do, if for no other purpose than to influence the campaign in the direction of his priorities is to declare a favorite son candidacy.

As California's favorite son, assuming he held the primary, which I believe he would, he would put down an immediate marker and lead the largest delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

Other steps could flow from that. Or not.

Incidentally, I also expect Brown's predecessor, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to have an intriguing year in which his film, sports, and public affairs ventures cohere and begin to reach critical mass.

So, even though the California elections, my longtime bread-and-butter topic, are a bust and the national midterms seem headed for more of something like the same, there's plenty to think and discuss in the political arena. Not to mention the arenas of science and exploration and culture and entertainment.

Speaking of which, I had intended to write about 2013's 50th anniversary year of Doctor Who, the longtime British mass smash-turned-global-cult-fave, right after its annual Christmas Special in which the current Doctor regenerated into his next iteration right after the event, but a mishap prevented it.

I got involved with intervening against a lowlife menacing a couple of UCLA coeds. Successfully and without visible damage, but wrenching my back and hip in the process. I can still do the moves -- well, the real kicks do elude me -- but not without cost.

Which, it occurs, might be of relevance to a certain governor, as well.

I hope you had a grand holiday season. Not all of what lies ahead will be so merry.