This past year was undoubtedly a difficult year for President Barack Obama. Sure, 2013 had the infamously disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplaces, the 16-day shutdown, and Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the National Security Administration’s classified surveillance programs. Sure, Obama ended the year (his sixth in office) with a modestly higher approval rating than in 2013. According to a December Gallup polling, 43% of Americans approved of the president’s job performance, and that put his sixth-year numbers well above President George W. Bush’s 37%, but below Ronald Reagan’s 48% and Bill Clinton’s 67%. But the fact that Obama’s final 2014 approval rating surpassed any recorded in his first five years in the White House belies the resentment from the public and congressional Republicans for his use of unilateral executive action to advance his own agenda and the growing feeling that he has failed to make a significant shift from Bush-era politics.
President Obama himself has described this past year as one of great progress. In his final press conference of 2013, he predicted the coming year would be a breakthrough year for the United States. And, on December 19, he asserted that prediction had been fulfilled. Even though he acknowledged that “there were crises that we had to tackle around the world,” Obama weighed the advancements the United States has made toward economic renewal and job creation, particularly the “recent pickup” in “higher-paying industries,” as more indicative of the coming future than the recent developments that are threatening international order. The examples the president cited — such as the new-found strength in American manufacturing, the burgeoning domestic energy industry, and the sizable drop in the uninsured rate — have done much to help his approval rating. But the acrimonious political climate, stagnation in Washington, and crises around the world and at home illustrate his failings as a president. In no way are these improvements enough to change the conversation on his presidential legacy.
In that same press conference, Obama essentially repackaged his key election promise. He campaigned in 2008 on the idea that his administration would bring a government more responsive to the needs of the average American. Simply put, he promised that his administration would be fundamentally different from that of his predecessors, and he was elected, largely, because he pledged to restore basic competence to government. The other tenet of his 2008 platform was his focus on improving the condition of the average American, which has remained part of his rhetoric until today. “We have more work to do to make sure our economy, our justice system, and our government work not just for the few, but for the many.” That lofty idealism stood Obama well in elections, but it is now being picked apart.
During Obama’s 40-minute interview with Steve Inskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition in late December, the overarching theme was the question of whether the Obama administration has made key incremental steps to returning the United States to what can be most simply referred to as normalcy after the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and 10-plus years of war in the Middle East.
The interview may have been wide-ranging, but the president who spoke to Inskeep was one eager to push a confident agenda. The coming new year begins the final phase of his presidency, and Obama appeared, once-again, intent on recovering from previous years’ disasters. Obama took several important actions in the weeks following the congressional midterm elections, and it is easy to see that he is attempting to make his final years in office not a lame duck residency. To that end, the president made clear in two key statements how he will work with Congress for the remainder of his term. First, he asserted that “there are going to be areas where” he and congressional Republicans will agree. But Obama also stated he will “be aggressive as I can be in getting legislation passed that I think help move the economy forward and help middle-class families.” Obama also promised to “pull that pen out” to defend gains his administration has made in health care and on “environment and clean air and water,” or in other words, veto any Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act or roll back new environmental regulations. Just weeks ago, he refused to sign a bill approving the controversial Keystone pipeline, as promised.
Inskeep asked Obama whether there was “some way in which the election just passed has liberated you?” The obvious implication of that question is that the Democrat’s loss of the Senate majority in particular and the passing of the midterm congressional elections in general has given Obama the freedom to leave the political wrangling behind. And while the president answered with a negative, he did later state in the interview that he wanted to work with Republicans. “I want to get things done. I don’t have another election to run.”
Already, Obama has set a post-election course, issuing an executive order deferring the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants and reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Those two actions were both extremely controversial and undertaken without the involvement of Congress. Of course, transitioning these actions into lasting legislation that reform the immigration system and completely normalize relations with Cuba, respectively, will require an act of Congress. Obama was careful to deny any connection between the results of the midterms and the immediacy of his announcements; he insisted that both his immigration order and his communications with Cuban President Raul Castro were the product of years of work. He claimed his efforts to reform the immigration system and bring about the end of last vestige of cold-war-era politics were made possible by the fact that the United States is now “as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically.”
What is liberating, in his opinion, is that a “a lot of the work that we’ve done is now beginning to bear fruit,” referring to the health care reform. And — “with the economy relatively strong, with us having lowered the deficit, with us having strong growth and job growth, for the first time us starting to see wages ticking up, with inflation low, with energy production high,” Obama now sees himself having “the ability to focus on some long-term projects, including making sure that everybody is benefiting from this growth and not just some.”
But there is little in the way of consensus in the broader political community that Obama is, at this point in his career, finally done unraveling the problems with which he began his presidency and acquired during his years in the White House. Case in point, Obama’s approval rating. Of all the presidents who served two complete terms since the advent of modern polling — Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — Obama falls in between Bush and Reagan. While his 2014 rating may be nearer to Reagan than to Bush, the fact that his standing is so close to that of his immediate predecessor is noteworthy. Obama promised to change government culture, to make a marked change from the administration that made blunders in Iraq and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and from the president who made “Heckuva job, Brownie” synonymous with federal incompetence. Obama promised to build his cabinet on the basis of a Lincoln-esque “team of rivals” that would push government to be inventive and diverse.
But scandals — such as the IRS targeting of tea party groups for special attention, the NSA leaks, the disastrous implementation of Obamacare’s cornerstone provision — as well as foreign policy missteps like the “reset” with Russia and the return of U.S. troops to Iraq, suggest to many of the president’s critics that basic competence has not yet returned to government. Public opinion supports that assessment. Gallup found that in 2014, only 23% of Americans were satisfied with the direction of the United States — a measure which is on the “lower end” of the readings the research firm has recorded since 1979.
As much as Obama would like to suggest he is beginning the “fourth quarter” of his presidency with a clean slate, he has a lot of problems to handle. In the interview, the president did not want to make the results of the congressional midterm elections an important judgement of his presidency — and indeed, they were far more complex than a simple referendum on Obama’s agenda — but the fact remains that his past, including his rocky relationship with Republicans, will guide the remainder of his term in office, and make it more difficult to work with Congress on their shared economic goals of rebuilding schools and infrastructure.
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