WASHINGTON -- Has this been the worst year of your presidency?”
It was a heck of a way for President Barack Obama to wrap up 2013. In asking the question at the president’s year-end news conference, Julie Pace of The Associated Press captured several things at once: the reality of a genuinely disappointing year for Mr. Obama; a mood of skepticism in the media about him; the inevitability of Beltway scorekeeping; and the personalization of nearly everything in politics.
Mr. Obama, for good reason, avoided a direct answer. But I’d suggest that 2013 was not his worst year. That distinction should be reserved for 2011, when the president emerged from the summer looking weak after protracted negotiations with House Republicans over a debt-ceiling increase.
Mr. Obama was operating from a position of fear. Faced with a GOP buoyed by its 2010 election victories and still intoxicated by insurrectionary Tea Party spirits, he believed Republicans might well be willing to pull the nation’s financial house down by refusing to raise the debt limit. This forced him to accept the long-term budget cuts in the “sequester” that to this day severely constrain his ability to innovate in policy — and largely lock in place a fiscal policy that’s holding back the economic recovery.
The year 2013 was better than that. It’s true that the health care website fiasco threatened to engulf Mr. Obama’s signature achievement. And Obamacare will undergo new tests in the coming year. The site’s “back end” problems in connecting with insurance companies could create more bad news in January as some who thought they had bought policies discover that their purchases failed to go through.
But the website’s troubles were fixable, and it’s remarkable that the repair has gone as quickly as it has. Next year, millions who were never insured will have purchased plans on the exchanges or received coverage through the Medicaid expansion. Republicans are quite confident that Obamacare will still be unpopular come next fall’s elections. Mr. Obama has at least a fighting chance to prove them wrong.
Moreover, something else happened this year that may, over time, prove far more important than the great website flop. In 2013, the Tea Party began to decline in both real and perceived power, and Republicans began a slow retreat from the politics of absolutism.
In this fall’s budget fight, Mr. Obama did not blink and Democrats did not break ranks when House Speaker John Boehner bowed to Tea Party pressure to shut down the government. The public was furious. Republicans plummeted in the polls and eventually gave in.
This set the stage for this month’s moderate reversal of some of the sequester’s spending cuts. The deal was championed — despite Tea Party opposition — by Rep. Paul Ryan, the avatar of the anti-spending right. Dozens of House Republicans who had voted for the shutdown in October to fend off primary challenges voted for the compromise in December to put perpetual budget crises behind them. When the roll was called, only 62 Republicans voted no.
Even as House Republicans were backing away from their far right, Senate Democrats struck a blow of their own against obstruction by ending the filibuster for presidential nominees, including most judges. It was another move away from near-total gridlock.
Curtailing the influence of the extreme wing of the Republican Party certainly did not make Congress productive. The real shame of 2013 lies in the failure of Congress to agree to even modest steps toward enhanced gun safety after the horror of Newtown.
The bottling-up of immigration reform in the House is the most obvious case of how internal forces in the GOP have prevented a congressional majority from working its will. The test of how much Republicans have freed themselves from the Tea Party’s sway will be whether Mr. Boehner decides next year to act on an issue he knows it’s in the interest of his party to deal with.
And there was unalloyed good news in the scrambling of both partisan and ideological lines in the debate over the government’s post-9/11 surveillance programs. The lack of clear party positioning makes reform more likely in 2014.
By the measure of Mr. Obama’s ambitious State of the Union address, this was a year disheartening enough to justify Julie Pace’s question. But on a longer view, 2013 could be remembered as the year when the far right began to weaken, the forces of obstruction began to recede, and the country began moving toward at least the possibility of constructive government.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (firstname.lastname@example.org).