If he gets a lump in his throat as he recollects that glorious night one year ago, who would blame him? After all, he was riding about as high as a man can ride on New Year’s Eve 2012.
There he was, almost literally the master of the universe — the canny victor of the 2012 election, having run what was instantly regarded as the most brilliant technical campaign in American history. He used that victory to prevail in a “fiscal cliff” showdown with Republicans the last week of December that led to the significant tax increases on the well-to-do he had sought since the beginning of his first term. He had a 53% approval rating; only 40% disapproved.
In a few weeks, he would be inaugurated for a second term and, liberated from the demands of running again and emboldened by his win, he would that day offer the country an unabashedly and unapologetically left-wing vision of the American future toward which he was guiding it.
“Preserving our individual freedoms,” he said in a startling turn of phrase, “ultimately requires collective action.”
There were guarantees to move forward on climate-change legislation, on new tax hikes as a means of combatting inequality, and on a panoply of liberal social policy goals from so-called “pay equity” to further steps on gay rights beyond his support for marital equality. And let us not forget the issue on everyone’s mind — gun control, in the wake of the Newtown school massacre of December 2012.
This was his moment. And moments of blissful triumph for great men are precisely why legend has it that Roman emperors hired men to walk beside them as they paraded through the Eternal City, whispering the words “Caesar, thou art mortal.”
For, as he rings in the new year of 2014, Obama has rueful cause to reflect on the words of the prophet Samuel: “Oh, how art the mighty fallen.”
In his case, we can calculate the fall precisely — anywhere from 10 to 15 points in his job-approval rating. And he has taken severe hits when it comes to how much people like him and how trustworthy they find him.
All in all, when it comes to public opinion, Barack Obama ends his fifth year in worse shape than any president since Richard Nixon. And Nixon didn’t even manage to finish his sixth year.
That fate will not befall Obama, obviously. But as the hopeful stories pour out of Washington about how he’s retooling his White House to dig himself out from under the rubble of the ObamaCare launch, and as liberals continue to assure themselves that once the website is working all will be well, the truth is that Obama’s return to his former glory in the coming year is highly unlikely.
For one thing, the president has gone from being someone in charge of events to someone who is being buffeted about by them — and once a leader loses his hold on the levers of power it’s very difficult to get them back.
Machiavelli says in “The Prince,” the greatest analysis of political power ever written, that successful leaders work to control their fortunes the way people construct dams and dikes to contain and direct powerful rivers.
“Fortune shows her power where the brave have not made preparations to resist her,” Machiavelli writes.
“She turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defenses have not been raised to constrain her.”
In the eyes of his friends and admirers, who are shocked at how badly things have gone, Obama did not raise “barriers and defenses” to prepare for the exigencies of fortune and now “everything is flying before it, all are yielding to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it.”
His response to the nightmarish ObamaCare rollout was only the capper in a year when his general response to questionable behavior by the executive branch was, almost literally, to play dumb.
When the IRS confessed it had inappropriately targeted conservative groups for scrutiny entirely owing to their political stances, the White House expressed bewilderment, some concern and upset, but acted as though it was happening far, far away — in some field office in Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, senior IRS officials were taking the Fifth before Congress, there were hurried retirements, and a general sense that something very, very dirty had gone down. The president’s general attitude was that he hadn’t known and anyway it wasn’t his business.
Over at the Department of Justice, it came to light that his attorney general Eric Holder had approved a highly problematic surveillance of the Associated Press in its effort to find a leaker, and had consented to the appalling designation of Fox News reporter James Rosen as a “criminal co-conspirator” in another leak investigation. The president’s response was no response: “I have complete confidence in Eric Holder as attorney general.”
Then came the discovery of what may be the worst security breach in US history, with contractor Edward Snowden dancing around the globe with tens of millions of highly classified documents. The president looked powerless and feckless when he proved unable to get the Chinese or the Russians to intercept or intercede to assist in Snowden’s return — indeed, Snowden is now living under the Russian umbrella.
In response, a peeved Obama cancelled a visit to Russia — only to find himself in Vladimir Putin’s perverse debt a month later. The president had announced he would strike Syria because of its use of chemical weapons, but was clearly reluctant to do so. Putin said he’d get the Assad government to cough up the weapons and Obama was let off the hook at the cost of an evil going unpunished and the regime solidifying its hold on power.
None of this made the president look good — even avoiding military action in Syria didn’t, because he was the one who had said he would do it in the first place.
The one moment when he seemed to have gotten the upper hand was the government shutdown at the beginning of October, but that was only because the Republicans looked worse. And that was illusory in any case, because polls during the shutdown showed he was accruing little or no benefit from it — the public blamed the GOP more but people blamed him plenty too.
And, of course, there came ObamaCare — two months of unrelievedly disastrous news followed by news that wasn’t so bad only by comparison with what had preceded it. Most important for Obama’s future, the killer moment wasn’t when the website didn’t work but when everybody had to acknowledge his four-year claim that “if you like your plan you can keep it” was an out-and-out lie.
This was so important because it exposed another lie — what you might call the great cover story of 2013.
People have come to believe Obama is out of touch and in over his head because having us believe these things was actually the least bad option for the president this year. It is actually better (or less damaging) for Obama to look incompetent than for him to look purposeful.
That’s one leadership device even Machiavelli didn’t foresee.
So now his admirers and supporters worry the job is too much for him, while those who are neither watch the spectacle with a certain grim satisfaction.
And so Barack Obama’s 2013 comes to its ignominious close. Auld lang syne, indeed.
Obama’s 2013: A year to forget
- January 16 — In the wake of the Newtown shootings, Obama outlines his gun-control proposals. After a backlash, nothing gets passed. In fact, gun sales skyrocket — up 55% in Texas and 46% in Pennsylvania.
- January 20 – Obama is sworn into his second term; his inaugural address is “heavy on broad rhetoric and light on policy specifics” according to the Washington Post. More people talk about Beyonce lip-synching the National Anthem.
- January 29 – In Las Vegas, Obama addresses the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. Though the Senate passed a bill in June, Obama again couldn’t get anything passed in the House.
- February 12 – President Obama delivers the State of the Union address and announces a drawdown in Afghanistan. While “green on blue” insider attacks on US troops continue, President Karzai of Afghanistan holds out on signing any sort of security agreement. Without the deal, all US troops will be gone from Afghanistan in 2014.
- March 1 — Despite saying his sequestration plan “will not happen” during the 2012 presidential campaign, Congress fails to reach a deal and sequestration cuts $85 billion across the board.
- March 2 — Open-air parks like the WWII memorial are closed by the parks department. Insiders later tell reporters the reason was political. The administration wanted the public to “feel the pain” of sequester cuts.
- May 10 — Lois Lerner, a director in the IRS, responds to a planted question at a speaking engagement, admitting the tax agency targeted conservative groups — delaying and denying their tax-exempt status. It’s later alleged that the IRS leaked tax returns of conservative groups and ordered up audits of political enemies.
- May 12 — It’s revealed that the administration, angry that the AP broke a story about a terrorism plot, had the private phone records of reporters secretly subpoenaed. Attorney General Eric Holder denies knowing about the seizure, but defends it because of the “very, very serious leak.”
- May 22 — Lerner claims before Congress she “didn’t break any laws” then invokes the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.
- May 23 — At the National Defense University, Obama tries to placate the left about his drone attacks by saying, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.” Apparently that “discipline” is “whatever Obama thinks is right.” Drone attacks continue unabated — including a strike on a Yemen wedding party earlier this month that killed at least 11.
- June 6 — The Washington Post and Guardian newspapers both publish information about spying programs by the NSA, courtesy of Edward Snowden, a former NSA employee who stole the material and fled to Hong Kong.
- June 23 — Edward Snowden arrives in Moscow, where Vladimir Putin refuses to give him up, and smirks when asked about him.
- June 25 — In a speech on climate change, Obama again waffles on the Keystone pipeline, pleasing neither side. As months go on without it being built, Canada has been making plans to ship oil by sea to China instead.
- July 2 — After taking off from Russia, the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales is re-routed to Austria and searched, on reports he could be carrying Snowden. He isn’t — and the heavy-handed stop increases pressure on the US and angers NATO allies.
- July 19 — Obama decides to weigh in on one criminal case out of thousands nationwide, saying, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago” after George Zimmerman is found not guilty of murdering the teen. Obama calls for “soul searching.”
- August 31 — Obama claims Syria has used chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, crossing the “red line” he had laid down. Obama claims he doesn’t need authorization to strike, but will ask Congress anyway. He later says even if Congress even says no, he can still do it.
- September 15 — Weeks after his Syria ultimatum, Obama accepts a Russian deal that allows Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to stay in power if he gives up chemical weapons. Putin smirks.
- September 23 — Lois Lerner retires suddenly; the investigation into the IRS targeting of conservative groups is ongoing.
- October 1 — Depsite passing in 2010, the actual launch of ObamaCare is a complete failure — the website crashes, few if any people can sign up and millions discover that their insurance is cancelled. Obama is forced to admit that his promise that “if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance” is a lie.
- October 1 — Unable to reach a budget deal, the government shuts down.
- October 17 — In a rare Obama victory, the shutdown ends with no concession to Republicans on the budget.
- October 23 — Snowden’s leaks reveal the US listened to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls. She angrily confronts Obama and latter compares the behavior to the Stasi.
- November 1 — Obama signs an executive order saying local governments must prepare for the “impact of global warming” — like making buildings stronger.
- December 10 — With the selfie seen round the world, Obama upstages Nelson Mandela’s memorial with a cellphone picture with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish PM Helle Thorning Schmidt.
- December 18 — Congress passes a bipartisan budget agreement. Bob Woodward says deal was reached, “because Obama was not part of the negotiations.”
- December 19 — Under pressure, Obama says people who have had their insurance cancelled don’t have to pay the penalty for not having insurance for one year. It’s the 14th change to the law since passage.
- December 31 — Estimates indicate more people may find their old health-care policies cancelled than who successfully signed up for new health insurance from ObamaCare.