WASHINGTON -- The end of the year brings with it one of journalism's lazier crutches -- the annual list of winners and losers.
Whatever value there is in judging a politician's standings in late December, it's limited. In today's hyper-kinetic Washington politics, conventional wisdom changes -- and quickly. And yet, in talking with operatives, Capitol Hill aides, Washington observers, and others, one impression is more permanent than any other: President Barack Obama had a really bad, tough-to-spin 2013.
It was, as conceded by David Axelrod, the president's longtime adviser, a "crappy year."
It's not just the poor rollout of the Affordable Care Act. To review: Obama worked Congress hard on gun control measures. It failed. He was hands-off with Congress on immigration reform. It failed. He pushed to avert sequestration cuts. They were enacted. He argued for unemployment benefits to be extended. They weren't. Revelations of aggressive investigations into national security leaks led to a review of Justice Department activities. Revelations that the IRS had screened tea party groups led to a reworking of the tax agency's practices. Revelations of the National Security Agency's broad surveillance programs, endorsed by Obama, led to popular revulsion, a court rebuke, another review, and likely reforms.
That a government shutdown gave the president one of his better moments says something about the year. Shortly after the October standoff was resolved, with polls showing a majority blamed Republicans, the anti-Obama dam broke. The ACA rollout was a disaster, and a signature promise of the program that Obama made himself was proven hollow.
At his year-end press conference Friday, Obama declined to call it the worst year of his presidency.
"I have now been in office five years, close to five years, was running for president for two years before that, and for those who've covered me during that time, we have had ups and we have had downs," he said. "I think this room has probably recorded at least 15 near-death experiences."
As proof that his rumored demise may be premature, Obama noted recent legislative activity and the prospect of a continued thaw. Obama's defenders, meanwhile, argued that some 2013 setbacks should be placed in context. The IRS "scandal" lost fizz when it became clear that the agency had screened progressive groups, too. Sequestration relief was passed during the year-end budget deal. Even the stalled immigration reform effort has an upside.
"We actually aren’t quite as gloomy about this year," said Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs and a co-founder of the centrist-Democratic group Third Way. "Yes, the ACA rollout was very rocky. But if they get their act fully together on that, he may be in for a more productive year in 2014 than many expect. He got a really good immigration bill out of the Senate, and there is hope in the House once the primary filing deadlines pass. ... We actually made some headway on gun safety -- getting a vote on final passage and a handful of Republicans is nothing to sneeze at. So we see a few green shoots. Of course, we don’t yet know if they are flowers or weeds."
But even when taking those green shoots into account, it's impossible to argue that Obama has been on a course he's enjoyed. The charts don't lie.
The more pertinent question (one whose answer has implications for the years ahead) is whether to blame personal missteps and mismanagement, or unforeseen events and structural problems with the political system?
For Axelrod, the president and his team aren't entirely blameless. Part of the damage was "self-inflicted," including the "atrocious rollout of the health care website," he said. But broader issues outside of Obama's control were more determinative.
"The fact is you start out wanting to talk about and work on one set of issues and then events drag you to other places," Axelrod said, pointing to the Newtown shootings and Syrian civil war as examples. "That is really the story of this year. ... A lot of it has to do with random events and orchestrated subversion on the part of the opposition."
Certainly, there were moments during the year when the president was forced off of his agenda. White House officials had planned a big jobs-related legislative push in January, for example, before the docket was overwhelmed by gun control. Other Democrats argued that the kinks of the political system did Obama in, with Republicans rewarded above all else for obstinacy.
"No White House is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, but I do think the structural problems overwhelmed everything else because it just became apparent that nothing could happen," said Bennett. "The degree of dysfunction was historic. ... He could have been Lincoln in 1863 and he wouldn't have been able to do anything."
But Republican obstruction isn't exactly new. Nor is the notion that the news cycle is unwieldy and difficult to control. Other Democrats were sympathetic to the president, but more inclined to say that Obama and his team were responsible for the mess.
Mike Lux, who served as Obama's liaison to the progressive community during the 2008 White House transition and has been critical of the administration since, argued that self-assuredness played a damaging role, preventing Obama and his team from seeing problems on the horizon. When would-be allies warned the White House about the looming dangers of health care insurance cancelations or the potential backlash to a Larry Summers Federal Reserve nomination, the advice was heard, but not necessarily heeded.
"I feel like the White House goes it alone too much," said Lux. "In advance of a battle or even in the early stages of a problem, it doesn't seem like they have gone out of their way to build unity and cohesion in the party and with progressive allies."
A top progressive operative put it more bluntly: "These guys are stunningly arrogant. They really believe that their shit doesn't smell, that they have all the answers. And that arrogance continues to hurt them."
As for policy, insularity has become the enemy of originality, Lux argued. That's led to an administration too comfortable with conventional wisdom. The president didn't challenge the intelligence community over the surveillance programs, and he made back room deals that complicated the health care law unnecessarily.
What's ironic, others said, is that Obama is more comfortable as president now than at any point since he was elected. Drew Westen, a professor at Emory University, famously criticized Obama in 2011 on the op-ed pages of The New York Times for acquiescing too much to his opponents and for uninspiring oratory.
Today, Westen praises Obama for increasingly relying on executive actions. If he were to grade Obama, he said he'd give him higher marks than "in all his prior years." Where Obama's administration has been tripped up, he argued, has been in a failure to elevate issues and messages that matter.
"There were people like me who at the end of 2009 were saying, 'You have got to start messaging in a coherent way about not only health care, but about what you are going to do about jobs and reigning in the power of banks, protecting consumers against predatory lending and credit practices that the average person was furious about,'" said Westen "That stuff was all clearly predictable by the end of 2009. Where I would fault him now is that I think he is doing the same thing again before this midterm election."
A request for comment from the White House was not returned. But it seems clear already that Obama and his team see value in Westen's point. In recent weeks, the administration has begun focusing on income inequality, wage stagnation and the need to spur job growth. Aides stressed that one of the first orders of business in 2014 will be getting unemployment insurance renewed.
"The core issue of the 2012 campaign was strengthening economic security for the middle class," said one former White House official. "The question is whether putting every other issue on the back burner and focusing on that out of the gate would have changed the outcomes. My answer: maybe not significantly, but somewhat."
And then there is the Occam's razor view of what went wrong. Had the Affordable Care Act's rollout not been so badly botched, the year-end retrospective would have been kinder.
Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont governor, argued as much when asked for his assessment. Every president who wins a second term suffers setbacks during his fifth year in office, Dean noted. And in all cases, the problems confronting Obama had to do either with a policy that he pushed or a personal decision that he made.
"It wasn't a policy issue, it was a digital problem," Dean said. "He is in trouble because of the website."
And for that reason, there is hope for a bounce in 2014.
"I would argue that if he didn't have the website collapse, he wouldn't be subjected to the five-year curse as much," said Dean. "All the other five-year curses were of the sitting president's own making. This one you may argue that three people down the line screwed up the website, not Obama. ... I do not think that he has been personally stained the way the other presidents were."