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Obama’s Year In Review

ISIS, Ferguson, the Senate, Ukraine, Ebola, border kids. Really, this was a pretty awful sixth year for the president. Not that he’s acting like it.

by James Oliphant     •     National Journal

Smug-ObamaYou can make a compelling case that 2014 was the worst year for President Obama since, well, the year before. And, in fact, the president spent much of this year trying to recover from some body blows he took in the final months of 2013, when, in short order, Congress rebuffed him on Syria and the federal health care exchange imploded.

Those setbacks ate away at Obama’s public support. According to Gallup, the president began 2014 with a 41 percent approval rating, and he’s ending it a tick or two higher. He’s also ending the year as a certified lame duck, facing two final years with a hostile Congress and the political conversation centering around the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul.

Losing the Senate punctuated a year when Obama again saw more bad moments than good, and largely garnered more criticism than praise, especially from fellow Democrats, who were quick to blame him as the party’s political fortunes declined. More that that, though, it was a year of stomach-churning uncertainty, with one airliner disappearing over the Pacific and another being shot down over Europe, a savage terrorist threat on the march in Iraq, continued civil war in Syria, and Ebola raging through Africa and touching the U.S.

Paradoxically, the midterm walloping seemed to liberate Obama. As if now resigned to the reality that he has fewer partners to work with than ever, he is freer to pursue his own agenda. And he ended the year with decisive moves on immigration, climate change, and opening up relations with Cuba, all of which infuriated his opponents but left the White House feeling reinvigorated.

So, here’s the year, warts and roses all. These are the president’s 10 worst episodes of 2014 and then five of his best:

FIRST THE BAD…..

1) The Ghost of Kobe. In an interview with The New Yorker that ran in January, Obama was seemingly dismissive of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” When ISIL began claiming territory in Syria and Iraq in massive chunks, culminating in the seizure of Tikrit in June, no one at the White House was using basketball analogies any longer. Obama looked like he had badly underestimated the threat. By August, the president was on TV, telling a war-worn American public that U.S. forces were going back into the region. It didn’t help matters when, at an August press conference, the president suggested that “we don’t have a strategy yet” when it came to containing the menace. Those types of moments, combined with Vladimir Putin’s surprise push into Crimea, made the White House look off balance on foreign affairs—and American confidence in the president on that issue plummeted. (As did American confidence in Kobe Bryant.)

2) Bowe Won’t Go. The White House learned the hard way that not every soldier rescued from captivity gets a ticker-tape parade. No sooner did Obama stage a celebratory event in the Rose Garden in May with the parents of freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was swapped for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo, than critics on both sides of the aisle started howling. Bergdahl was accused of deserting his unit in Afghanistan, while Obama was accused of violating the stated official position of never negotiating with terrorists. The White House argued this was a standard end-of-war prisoner exchange, but even that was problematic as it seemed to elevate the Taliban to the level of heads of state. And there were worries that the trade placed a bounty on heads of U.S. soldiers.

3) NSA You Will. Remember that big speech Obama gave in January about reforming the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices—particularly the collection in bulk of Americans’ telephone records? In December, a federal court quietly reauthorized the collection program for another 90 days after Congress failed to pass a reform bill. Civil libertarians have long said that Obama can end the metadata collection program on his own, and they charge that the administration is using congressional gridlock as an excuse to keep it intact. Stay tuned as the issue is likely to resurface in the new GOP Congress.

4) Linked-Out. Few people begrudge a president his leisure time, but it’s more worrisome when a pastime turns into a metaphor for what critics charged was an increasingly checked-out Obama. Every warm weekend seemingly saw Obama hitting the links, even as the world, at times, felt like it was wobbling a bit between Iraq, Ukraine, the protests in Ferguson, Mo., the spread of Ebola, and other crises. The outcry reached its peak when the president, while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in August, gave a somber public statement about the beheading of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State and then was photographed yukking it up on the course, providing his very own Fahrenheit 9/11 moment. Obama later conceded that the “optics” of the moment were bad.

5) The Bear Is Lost. Optics were a continual problem for this White House. In a bit of brand marketing in July, aides started to promote the notion that Obama “the bear” was no longer going to be caged by gridlocked Washington. “The Bear Is Loose!” went the campaign. Ultimately, it led to the president being photographed playing pool and drinking beer in Colorado just as waves and waves of refugee children from Central America were spilling across the southwestern border. Obama then decided not to travel to the border to see the situation for himself, likely fearful of what the optics of that situation would do for his push to reform the nation’s immigration system. Instead, he staged an awkward press conference hundreds of miles up the road in Dallas. Weeks later, the situation played out again when Obama went forward with a public event in Delaware just as news of a jetliner shot down over Ukraine was flooding the airwaves and then attending a Democratic fundraiser that evening.

6) Below the Fray. The border crisis foreshadowed other moments in the fall when the president chose a low profile in a pair of incendiary events that had the public divided. When protests erupted in Ferguson over the killing by police of an African-American man, Michael Brown, Obama, vacationing on the Vineyard, issued a statement expressing his condolences. When another round of protests was sparked after a grand jury failed to indict the police officer who shot Brown, Obama went on TV to plead for calm. But at no point did he seem inclined to travel to Ferguson to meet directly with the aggrieved. And when Senate Democrats released a report earlier this month concluding that the Central Intelligence Agency had engaged in repeated episodes of torture and had misrepresented its effectiveness, the president pointedly refused to endorse it, or address it publicly in any way. The issues were intertwined in that both speak to the abuse of state power—and perhaps it was good politics for Obama to stay out of both. But his absence was felt.

7) The Immigration Chicken Dance. Early in the year, as immigration activists cranked up their criticism of the administration’s deportation policy, Obama claimed he was powerless to act. The only way to effect change, he said, was for Congress to pass an immigration-reform bill. But after the legislation’s prospects faded in the House, Obama and his aides shifted sharply. Suddenly—almost gleefully—they pledged deportation relief through executive action by the end of the summer. (That in turn led to pretzeled questions at press briefings about how the White House defined the “end” of summer. Labor Day? The equinox?) But it ended up not to matter, because when endangered Senate moderates fretted about the order, the White House punted until after the election. That move only ensured that the issue would continue to cast a shadow over the midterms, while frustrating activists and Hispanic voters alike. And Republicans are as furious now as they would have been then.

8) Stuck on the Middle. But what frustrated Democratic candidates and their consultants more than the immigration shuffle was Obama’s failure, in their minds, to craft an economic message that would resonate with middle-class voters still worried about the sluggish recovery. The White House spent much of the year (practically until its very end) making half-hearted statements about economic progress, noting hopeful signs but never failing to point out that the recovery wasn’t being felt by everyone. What was missing, critics said, were coherent solutions. Obama, too, sometimes stepped on his own message. In what was marketed as a major speech on the economy during the summer in Kansas City, the president used the occasion to rip congressional Republicans in a campaign-style attack that furthered the negativity around Washington that voters were feeling.

9) All Is Lost. And voters—at least the ones who showed up—took their frustrations out on the president and his party at the polls. According to exit polls, about one-third of voters said their vote was a direct expression of their unhappiness with Obama. And more than 40 percent strongly disapproved of his performance. The Affordable Care Act continued to be a political anchor, reaching new depths of unpopularity. To the frustration of his conservative critics, Obama never seemed chastened by the result, instead focusing on the wide swatch of voters who never showed up and taking that as a mandate for unilateral action.

10) Fashion Forward. It’s a tie—between the infamous tan suit and Obama’s decision to not wear a tie at the podium in the White House briefing room. (We actually like the tan suit—and is there a better joke than ” The Audacity of Taupe?”)

AND NOW THE GOOD….

1) Keep Calm, Etc, Etc. America pretty much lost its collective mind over the presence of the Ebola virus in the United States. To much of the public, it was The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, and Contagion all rolled into one. But Obama and the administration repeatedly fought hysteria with science—not an easy task these days. It’s true, however, that in the early days of the scare, when a patient died in a Dallas hospital, the White House looked flat-footed and slow to respond. (This seems to be a president better at correcting courses than setting them.) Ultimately, though, the virus was contained, as the president said it would be—even after Northeast Ohio went into full-fledged panic after a nurse from Dallas flew to Cleveland. No person who contacted the disease in the United States died.

2) I’ll Be Your Weatherman. After years of foot-dragging, the administration put the changing climate on the front burner, so to speak. It proposed a series of Environmental Protection Agency regs that would, among other things, limit emissions from coal-fired power plants and reduce ozone pollution. Then, on a trip to Asia after the election, Obama announced a new accord with China that would require that country to produce more energy from non-fossil-fuel sources and ensure its carbon emissions peak by 2030. Conservatives vowed to block the EPA regs and blasted the China deal as hollow and unenforceable. But to those who believe that science has objectively established that the world is heating up because of greenhouse gases, Obama’s actions were welcome.

3) The Better Angels. As noted above, for much of the year, White House handled the question of an immigration executive order like Jay Cutler handles a football. But when it came to defending his action, the president spoke with an eloquence that has often eluded him during his second term, calling back to our shared history as a nation of immigrants. “We were strangers once, too,” he said in an East Room address. “And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal—that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.” The propriety—or even the legality—of Obama’s move will be fiercely debated for years, but the words, for once, came from the heart.

4) Out of the Ditch. Somehow, the administration managed to squander much of the political goodwill that stems from a recovering economy, but there’s no doubt now that things are on the mend. November was the best year for job growth since 1999 and marked the 10th straight month of job gains over 200,000. Unemployment is now down to 5.8 percent. Hourly wages are (slowly) rising. Manufacturing is up. Energy production is roaring (even if oil prices are crashing). Your mileage will vary on how much credit the president gets for any of this; voters don’t seem to be giving it to him or his party yet. And then, despite all the good news, there’s that sinking feeling that a large swath of working-class and middle-class jobs are gone and they aren’t coming back.

5). This happened.

HONORABLE MENTION, PENDING REVIEW

As part of his bid to normalize relations with Cuba, the government is expected to allow Americans returning from the island to bring up to $100 of Cuban cigars back for personal use. Obama, apparently, isn’t wasting time.