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POLITICS: PennAve

Obama's horrible year: Even his supporters wonder if he can reboot his administration and save his second term

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,PennAve,Surveillance

For President Obama, 2013 will go down as a year of self-inflicted wounds, wasted political capital and missed opportunities that imperiled his second-term agenda and fundamentally changed how many Americans view his administration.

Any political boost from his resounding re-election victory swiftly disappeared under the weight of Washington gridlock. A series of White House missteps followed, diminishing his credibility and raising questions about his ability to reinvigorate his presidency.

The president started the year on the defensive and has yet to find his forward-leaning stride.

Just when Obama thought he had put to rest questions about Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups and about the Justice Department monitoring reporters, new cries of executive overreach emerged with disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Those controversies were the warm-up act: The botched Obamacare rollout leaves the president facing a critical test of his leadership. Failing to save his health law could validate complaints that, five years in, he isn't CEO material.

“The American people are beginning to see through the rhetoric -- they've had enough,” Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., told the Washington Examiner.

“This isn't just a matter of health care,” he added. “This is what happens when the government gets so big, so fast, so expansive. It's almost inevitable -- you're going to see these kinds of scandals and abuses.”

Obama took big swings legislatively in 2013 but came up mostly empty.

On comprehensive immigration reform, gun control and his unabashedly progressive blueprint for economic growth, Obama was unable to push legislation through Congress, with lawmakers now looking ahead to next year's midterms.

“I think it's been a very big lost year for the White House,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in an interview with the Examiner.

“He started out with one of the most political inaugural speeches you've ever heard,” McCarthy added. “The only thing he's changed is instead of blaming [former President George W.] Bush, it's now just the Republicans.”

The lack of legislative breakthroughs alone was enough to spark discontent among Obama’s Democratic allies. But liberal angst intensified with the stumbling rollout of his signature domestic initiative.

The problem-plagued launch of healthcare.gov became a symbol of bureaucratic ineptitude, and Obama's empty promise that all Americans could keep their insurance coverage was even more damaging because it changed how the public viewed him personally.

For the first time, a majority no longer find the president trustworthy, polls show. His approval ratings dropped below 40 percent -- figures remarkably similar to his predecessor Bush, who was never able to recover from a loss of public confidence early in his second term.

The Obamacare debate became so all-consuming that it overshadowed another political headache for the administration: the uproar over NSA surveillance following damaging leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden.

Together, the Obamacare and NSA controversies present a two-front challenge for Obama, with some observers questioning whether the administration used virtually unchecked powers to infringe on Americans’ privacy and others unconvinced the government is competent enough to implement a sweeping overhaul of the health care system.

To succeed, Obama needs to both restore the public’s trust in his personal competence and the ability of government to deliver on his promises.

“Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” Obama said in his January inaugural address, urging the government to address income inequality, climate change and immigration.

White House officials acknowledge it has been a bruising year for the president but scoff at the idea that Obama has squandered his second term. They counter that the political fights of 2013 have inflicted even greater damage to the GOP brand.

Obama aides point to the government shutdown -- and Republicans absorbing the brunt of the blame -- as proof that the GOP has an even tougher fight to win back voters.

But aside from winning a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans in the “fiscal-cliff” deal and the Democratic Senate's use of the "nuclear option" to open the door for Obama's executive and judicial nominees, Hill victories for the White House have been rare to nonexistent.

Asked to identify the president’s marquee accomplishments for the year, senior administration officials pointed to issues that critics would rank among Obama’s biggest disappointments.

One senior Obama aide cited a Senate-passed immigration bill that would “clear the House if put to a vote,” and the administration's effort to get Obamacare “back on the right trajectory.”

“It’s a double-edged sword,” the senior administration official told the Examiner. “We make important progress [on immigration] but critics counter that we didn’t do enough because they don’t see legislation. We have gotten further on this issue than any other administration.”

The argument that Obama fought the good fight but was unable to overcome Washington gamesmanship marks a major retreat for a candidate who vowed to transform politics and hailed government as a vehicle to cure chronic societal ills.

Obama's surrogates say foreign policy offered him refuge from his domestic missteps, touting a deal to disarm Syrian strongman Bashar Assad's chemical weapons arsenal and an accord to slow Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Critics counter that the president stumbled into those outcomes, diminishing American leadership and fueling Mideast instability.

Obama's “red line” threatening intervention if Assad used chemical weapons constantly shifted and came off as a hollow threat. When the president did press for U.S. strikes on Syria after a poison gas attack on civilians, Congress scoffed at his last-minute appeals. Only when Russian President Vladimir Putin swooped in to secure a deal with Damascus did Obama find an exit. But the deal to destroy Assad's chemical weapons still faces numerous obstacles.

The Iran talks have left close allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, nervous that Obama undermined a carefully-crafted sanctions regime while doing nothing to stop Tehran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Lawmakers fear there is no way to ensure Iran upholds its commitments and are pushing for further sanctions.

A surge in violence in both Afghanistan and Iraq also threatens to distract from Obama's desired “pivot” to Asia, as President Hamid Karzai ignores U.S. pressure to sign a postwar security deal for Afghanistan.

The NSA controversy also followed Obama onto the world stage, with European allies angered by eavesdropping and Brazil's president canceling a state visit in protest.

For many Americans, however, the president’s political future still hinges on Obamacare.

Obama is urging supporters to stay patient and wait for the law’s benefits to materialize. The White House contends that Republicans have no viable alternatives for Obamacare, limiting the long-term political damage from the rocky rollout.

“It would be an overreaction for Democrats to change course,” Democratic pollster Margie Omero insisted. “Ultimately, this is about which party is seen as trying to put ideas on the table versus the party just saying ‘no’ for the sake of saying ‘no.’ ”

As damaging as 2013 has been for the president, that's nothing compared to the current state of the Republican Party, Obama surrogates argue.

Polls do show Congress with lower ratings than the White House. Yet, some GOP leaders believe that gap is shrinking.

“They're fast catching up,” former Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., quipped about the race to the bottom between the White House and Congress. “Obamacare is going to end up like a centipede -- shoes will keep dropping for weeks and months.”

“His principal campaign theme was 'Mitt Romney is a rich, white guy,' " said Barbour, explaining why Obama has so quickly lost his reservoir of good will.

Obama, however, has another path for enacting major provisions of his agenda — one that bypasses Congress.

Obama is expected to rely on executive orders to implement new educational standards, tougher financial regulations and jobs initiatives. With little appetite for cap-and-trade legislation, he is also turning to the Environmental Protection Agency to enact tough carbon emissions standards on power plants.

By 2016, Obama supporters contend, the president won’t lack second-term accomplishments.

“You might not like it,” said one former Obama administration official. “But if he doesn’t need Congress, I guaran-damn-tee you that plenty will get done before he leaves office.”

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