President Barack Obama listens to a question during his end-of-the-year news conference, Dec. 20, 2013. 
Charles Dharapak/AP

The year that Congress stole


Running for re-election last year, President Obama predicted that the knee-jerk Republican opposition to his agenda that marred his first term would subside in his second.

“I believe that if we’re successful in this election—when we’re successful in this election—that the fever may break,” Obama told a Minneapolis crowd in June 2012. “My expectation is that after the election … we can start getting some cooperation again.”

On immigration, on the budget, on infrastructure spending, and on energy, Obama said, chastened Republicans would surely be willing to work constructively with him once he’d been approved by voters a second time.

Not even close.

Gun reform, immigration, job creation: the president’s top legislative goals have been stymied by Republicans in Congress, who have gone to almost unprecedented lengths to hobble him. The upshot: 2013 has seen frustratingly little progress on the issues that Obama promised would be central to his second term, as his approval ratings have sunk to record lows. That’s left him increasingly reliant on strategies for sidelining the GOP, as he urgently tries to revive his flagging presidency.

“A lot of our legislative initiatives in Congress have not moved forward as rapidly as I’d like,” Obama acknowledged in a December 20 press conference. “I completely understand that.” 

Beyond failed legislation, the White House has been on the defensive time and time again this year, bogged down by GOP-driven crises and pseudo-scandals like the IRS and Benghazi. Obama spent much of the fall forced to fend off quixotic efforts by extremist Republicans to defund the Affordable Care Act by shutting down the government, as well as to use the debt ceiling to hold the economy hostage. Since then, Obama has been scrambling to rescue his key first-term accomplishment in the face of a botched rollout and deliberate conservative sabotage.

Republicans bear most of the blame for the lack of action. Still, it’s hard to argue with the assessment of Peter Wehner, who had an up-close view of a president’s second-term struggles as a top policy adviser to President George W. Bush, that Obama hasn’t come close to meeting the goals he set for himself.

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“I think it was an awful year,” Wehner said. “A detached view measuring what he said he wanted to accomplish versus what he’s actually accomplished shows that he’s fallen woefully short.”

There have been achievements along the way. The bipartisan budget deal may have been modest and left many of the harmful sequester cuts intact, but it will at least stop the GOP from threatening to shut down the government again any time soon. It likely wouldn’t have happened without Obama’s staunch refusal to negotiate on that issue back in September. November’s landmark nuclear pact with Iran is a significant step for international security. And the agreement, brokered by Russia, to remove Syria’s chemical weapons may have spared the U.S. from getting mired in another Mideast conflict.

Of course, those foreign deals didn’t require approval from lawmakers. Much more common has been the sight of Obama’s top priorities dying with a whimper on Capitol Hill. What happened on guns offered the first warning.

After last December’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Obama pushed hard for new laws to reduce gun violence. Polls showed overwhelming backing for common-sense gun control steps, and even conservative pro-gun lawmakers sounded supportive.

But after a fierce lobbying campaign by gun groups, a measure requiring background checks for gun show purchases was blocked by a Republican filibuster in April. And an amendment to ban assault weapons wasn’t even brought to a vote. Two relatively minor executive orders aside, Obama has little to show for the gun reform effort a year after Newtown. Today, the battle over the issue has largely shifted to the states.

“There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it,” Sen. Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican who co-sponsored the background checks measure, explained to reporters after it died.

“I think he got a dose of the cold water of hard reality fairly early, with the gun vote,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who lately has emerged as an outspoken critic of Republican obstructionism. ”They stripped it down to the most inoffensive component–expanded background checks, 95% of Americans supporting them….And they get 55 votes and it’s filibustered to its death.”

Still, it was on immigration that hopes for major congressional action were highest. Top Republicans, afraid of alienating the growing Latino population, were openly calling on their party to pass comprehensive reform immediately after the election. With the RNC’s blessing, senators like John McCain and Marco Rubio, who had swung right on immigration in recent years, endorsed a path to citizenship and crafted a bipartisan bill that easily passed the Senate in June.

But House Republican leaders, fearing a backlash from conservatives, quickly declared the Senate bill dead on arrival. They pledged to produce their own piecemeal solution. Six months later, they’ve offered just a handful of mostly uncontroversial bills and held no floor votes on even those. Pro-immigration lawmakers worry the window to pass meaningful legislation is closing. Many conservatives have soured on the idea of courting Latino voters, arguing instead that victory lies in boosting white support.

Obama’s hopes for a Grand Bargain that would cut the long-term deficit and reform the tax code also lie in ruins. Democrats were able to use the Bush tax cuts’ expiration date at the start of the year as leverage for a deal raising taxes on the super-rich. But without another deadline to strengthen their hand, they’ve struggled to convince Republicans to even fund the government at all, leading to the 16-day shutdown in October. And there’s little sign that Republicans are any more willing to work out a larger deal trading tax increases for entitlement cuts than they were last year—as the Dec. 18 modest budget deal confirmed.

Even one relative recent bright spot—the economy’s somewhat improved performance—has come mostly despite, not because of, Washington. In his State of the Union address, Obama laid out an ambitious plan to boost employment and strengthen the middle class—including infrastructure spending, help for homeowners looking to refinance, and tying the minimum wage to the cost of living. Congress has acted on none of those ideas.

“He’s tried to implement things that would help, but has been blocked at every step by a very challenging Congress,” said Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to the Obama White House and an msnbc contributor. “They can barely keep the lights on.”

It’s been the same story on a host of other agenda items, from passing legislation to curb climate change, closing Guantanamo, and ensuring equal pay for women. Even Obama’s election night pledge to “do something” about eight-hour wait times at the polls may end up having little impact. A bipartisan panel is set to release non-binding recommendations soon, but it’s far from clear they’ll be acted upon. Indeed, his Justice Department suffered a major defeat on voting rights when the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act in June. 

With crucial midterms approaching, things could get worse before they get better. Ornstein noted that the top two Republicans in the Senate will have to fend off tea party challengers, giving them even less reason to deal with Obama.

“The more you get away from that [2012] election, and the more you move towards the 2014 primary contests, now with both Senate Republican leaders facing challenges from the right, any hopes that were there have been, I think, pretty well dashed,” Ornstein said.

None of this means Obama’s out of options. Lately, there have been signs that he at last understands the need to work around, not with, the GOP. First, he offered crucial backing for the successful push by Senate Democrats to end the filibuster for executive branch and judicial nominees, making it easier for him to staff his administration and the courts. Then last week, he brought in John Podesta, a veteran of the Clinton White House, to spearhead an effort to make better use of the president’s executive power, especially on climate change. Already, Obama has directed the EPA to regulate global warming emissions, trying to do what he can to combat climate change through executive action.

“I think he came to realize that not even a sweeping re-election victory was going to have any significant impact” on the attitude of Republicans, Ornstein said.

So Obama can’t be counted out. “You can’t write his obituary at this point,” Wehner said. “Politics in general is not linear, it’s dynamic and fluid. People can be written off one month, and come back another month.” 

In fact, the president ended 2013 by striking the same optimistic tone he showed while running for re-election. Citing the improved economy, the recent budget deal, and renewed hopes for immigration reform in 2014, he declared at his year-end press conference:

“When I look at the landscape for next year, what I say to myself is: We’re poised to do really good things.” 

Barack Obama

The year that Congress stole