Published December 22. 2013 4:00AM
When historians write the story of Barack Obama's presidency, 2013 will be his lost year. It opened with great promise and closed with equally great disappointment. In a year that could have been about building his legacy, the president was instead reduced to salvaging the signature accomplishment of his first term.
The chasm between what was expected and what was delivered was evident in the precipitous drop in Obama's approval ratings throughout 2013, all the way down to George-W.-Bush-second-term territory. Dashed expectations sent Democrats up for re-election in 2014 fleeing for cover and comforted Republicans still smarting from their party's 2012 defeat.
Second-term presidencies are tricky. The pace of modern politics and the desire of journalists (scourges!) to always look ahead to the next campaign put a re-elected incumbent in a race against irrelevancy from the second he is sworn in again. Scandals tend to creep in or escalate - Watergate, Iran-contra, Monica Lewinsky - and investigations follow, often drifting far afield. Momentum toward any meaningful achievement fades.
Usually, a president has until the midterm elections of his second term to get big things done; after that, attention moves on to deciding who will next occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But Obama may not have the luxury of even that truncated timeline. The split control in Congress - Democrats in charge in the Senate, a Republican majority in the House - combined with the tea party's continued demand for conservative purity from its elected officials and the politicization of just about everything makes it hard to imagine that 2014 will afford Obama any chance to move his agenda through Congress. And his addition of John Podesta, a vocal advocate of taking executive action to end-run lawmakers, to the White House staff suggests that the president has effectively given up trying to work with the Hill.
All of which makes what happened - or more accurately, what didn't happen - in 2013 that much more dire for Obama's chances of leaving a lasting legacy on his party, Washington and politics more broadly.
Let's start from the beginning, or a bit earlier. Despite a tenuous economic recovery and an unpopular health-care law, Obama surged to a convincing win in November 2012. The victory gave him a mandate to continue in the vein of his first four years, as well as providing a damning assessment of the GOP's ability to attract any voters other than white men.
Obama used that momentum to cut a favorable deal with Republicans to avert the "fiscal cliff," and he was able to unite the country after the horrific murder of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown.
On Jan. 1, then, it wasn't difficult to imagine the passage of a broad gun-control measure, an immigration reform package, and a series of bills addressing the country's debt and spending issues. The reasons none of these things came to be all lead back to Obama.
First came the scandals.
The Internal Revenue Service acknowledged that it had targeted tea party groups' applications for nonprofit, tax-exempt status and subjected them to heightened scrutiny, giving Republicans a way to rally their base after a dispiriting election.
Edward Snowden's leaks of scads of classified materials detailing the vastness of the National Security Agency's spying operation not only put Obama on his heels for months but badly damaged his credibility with U.S. allies such as Germany and Brazil.
Republicans insisted that the Obama administration had covered up information about who knew what and when regarding the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya, which left a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered high-profile testimony before Congress, and the attack got so politicized that it squashed U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's chances to succeed Clinton at State.
And then there was the Affordable Care Act, the single biggest achievement of the president's five years in office. The rollout of the federal health insurance exchange, one of the law's key elements, was a complete failure - even though we didn't realize it until Republicans reversed course on their own massive political flub and reopened the federal government after a 16-day shutdown. (The GOP's lack of any coherent strategy may have been the only silver lining in Obama's year.) On top of that, Obama's oft-repeated pledge that "if you like your insurance, you can keep it" wasn't true - Politifact even deemed it the "Lie of the Year." He later made a public apology.
As if the self-inflicted wounds and scandals everywhere weren't enough to ensure the demise of Obama's agenda, Republicans in Washington spent 2013 in a public slap fight over the direction of their party. Even if the president had been able to extricate himself from the problems that cropped up throughout the year, it became abundantly clear early on that there was not one Republican with whom he could negotiate, whether on guns, immigration or anything else.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) - he of the fiscal cliff agreement - was loath to associate himself too closely with anything that reeked of bipartisanship as he dealt with a conservative primary challenge back home. (McConnell did ultimately step in and cut the deal that ended the government shutdown, a mercy killing for his side.) Speaker John Boehner couldn't lead House Republicans anywhere as the tea-party wing repeatedly rebelled against him (on the Farm Bill, Hurricane Sandy relief, the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization and so on), leaving him speaker in name only.
Add it all up, and you get the least-productive Congress in history (only 55 bills have been passed by both chambers and signed into law this year); the least-popular Congress in history; and a president most Americans no longer like or, perhaps more important, trust.
Yes, the economy is showing signs of improving. And yes, enrollment on HealthCare.gov is soaring compared with the first few weeks. Those facts provide hope for those who believe that 2014 will be better for Obama.
But 2013 is almost gone and with it the president's best chance for a lasting legacy. The damage done to Obama's brand will linger well beyond this calendar year.
There are no second chances in presidential tenures.
Chris Cillizza, a political reporter for The Washington Post, anchors The Fix blog and writes the Worst Week in Washington column.