Obama and his supporters look back on lost year

Washington: It has been a long year for US President Barack Obama. In January he celebrated his second inauguration, only to be named over the weekend as having the worst year in Washington by his hometown paper, The Washington Post.

Adding insult to injury, on Friday PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times fact-checking outfit that has become one of America’s best-known arbiters of political honesty, accused him of being responsible for Lie of The Year.

Each week the Post’s Chris Cillizza writes a column called Worst Week. This week he enjoyed a section cover and two inside pages to explain why, in his view, Mr Obama had come in bottom, pages dressed up with a chart showing Mr Obama’s approval rating sliding from respectable high 50s to a George W. Bush-ish low 40s.

The President began the year confident that he could prosecute a second-term agenda that was to have included gun control legislation in the wake of Sandy Hook, immigration reform, the  bedding-down of Obamacare (which is where the alleged Big Lie comes in, but we’ll come back to that) and perhaps an assault on the US’s growing inequality.

This would have ensured Mr Obama’s legacy and strengthened the Democratic Party’s position as it prepared to fight the 2014 midterm elections.

Instead, as Cillizza charts in his spread, the White House spent months defending charges that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted right-wing organisations for taxation scrutiny. In the end inquiries found both left and right-leaning groups had been hit, and the IRS audits were in part caused by poor guidelines as to the difference between charitable work and political work by non-profit groups.

These fine distinctions made little impact on a nation already sceptical of its leaders.

Then came the leaks by Edward Snowden, the young National Security Agency contractor who revealed the extraordinary extent of the US government’s spy operation against its own people as well as the citizens and leaders of friendly nations. The diplomatic and political fallout is yet to be fully charted, though it is clear that much of Mr Obama’s most reliable constituency remains appalled.

The US government itself was shut down by Republican hardliners demanding draconian spending cuts. They also threatened to prevent the country from paying its own bills unless Obamacare was defunded, prompting fears that American infighting could cause another global economic crisis. Mr Obama’s refusal to negotiate over the debt limit became his most significant victory of the year, but not before the American people’s faith in government fell even further.

Which brings us to what Politifact named Lie of The Year.

Time and again, without equivocation, Mr Obama reassured people that when Obamacare kicked in, "if you like your [current] health care plan, you can keep it''.

Well no, not quite. You can keep your plan only if it meets certain criteria. An unknown number of people have plans that don’t, and they have received letters telling them that they are now without health insurance.

The policy is not mendacious, it is one way the administration is seeking to reduce price gouging. It is trying to eliminate cheap “junk” policies that promise much and deliver little.

No matter. What Mr Obama told people time and again in interviews and at rallies was at best an oversimplification and at worst, you know, the Lie of The Year.

The damage was compounded for the White House on October 1 when the most public element of the package began operation, a government website on which people could shop for health insurance on the private market.

It was an utter catastrophe. The slipshod website collapsed and took weeks to resuscitate. The most ardent supporters of both the health reforms and the President were stunned at the White House’s failure to manage something so basic and so crucial.

The most optimistic of Mr Obama’s supporters argue that if Obamacare succeeds in the long run – and so far its key failures have been largely of process and politics – he will be remembered as a great reformer.

But they would be hard pressed to argue that 2013 was anything but a lost year, and that this President has little time left to make his mark.

It might be little comfort to the White House that the runner-up in the Post’s Worst Year stakes was simply “Republicans”.

“If freedom is just a word for nothing left to lose,” wrote Cillizza, “the Republican Party was as free as it has ever been in 2013.”

@npomalley

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