WASHINGTON — The good news for President Obama, members of Congress and other capital policymakers as they look ahead to 2014: Next year can’t possibly be as bad as this one has been.
The year that is limping to a close was defined by the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the 16-day shutdown of the federal government and the disclosures by contractor Edward Snowden of National Security Agency spying that prompted presidential apologies to foreign friends and allies. Proposals to overhaul the immigration system and tighten gun laws went nowhere despite being supported by most Americans. The standing of the president and the Congress sank to record or near-record lows.
That said, some encouraging glimmers at year’s end include a bipartisan budget deal (admittedly a modest one) that passed and an economic recovery that is gaining steam.
Here are five crucial dates that will help determine how he does in fulfilling that goal.
Obama’s bully pulpit
It was a big speech — his electrifying address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 — that launched Barack Obama as a national figure. Rhetoric helped rescue him when his presidential campaign faltered over race and a firebrand former pastor. His soaring language before an enormous crowd massed in Chicago’s Grant Park the night he was elected in 2008 boosted his standing across the country.
Now the State of the Union address next month will be an opportunity for Obama once again to use the bully pulpit to reach and persuade the nation. Speaking to what is likely to be the biggest audience he will command all year, the president can outline his legislative agenda for the year. Will he renew his push for an immigration overhaul? Revive efforts to simplify the tax code? Try to address growing economic inequality?
In his first speech to a Joint Session of Congress, in 2009, Obama focused on efforts to stem the nation’s financial crisis — “the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others,” he declared — and in the addresses that followed he has pushed for education bills, touted the end of the Iraq war and demanded votes on gun control legislation. Last February, 33.5 million people tuned in to hear what he had to say.
"The State of the Union address is obviously important; it gets the most attention from the news media and from citizens," says political scientist Jeffrey Cohen of Fordham University. That said, there are limits to what words can do. After five years in office during a polarized time, it’s hard to find many Americans who are open to persuasion. "People really have their minds made up," Cohen says, "and the people who don’t have their minds made up are fed up."
Consider the priorities Obama highlighted in the State of the Union a year ago. He said this year would be “our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform.” It’s stalled. He wanted “to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” That hasn’t happened. He said “the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.” It didn’t. He proposed raising the minimum wage, saying “we should be able to get that done.” Apparently not.
Obamacare in recovery
Some of the deadlines in the Affordable Care Act have turned out be remarkably elastic. The timetable for small businesses to give employees a choice of plans on the new marketplace was delayed for a year. So was the requirement that bigger businesses offer health coverage. The deadlines for individuals to sign up and to pay in order to start coverage on Jan. 1 was nudged back a bit.
But March 31 remains the key date, the deadline for Americans to have enrolled for health care coverage or face a fine. If they don’t have insurance through their employer or in a government program, the law says they have to have signed up for a plan or pay a penalty when they file their tax returns for 2014.
On the day before the HealthCare.gov website opened on Oct. 1, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was asked what success would look like. “Well, I think success looks like at least 7 million people having signed up by the end of March 2014,” she told NBC. Then, the administration projected 3.2 million would sign up by Jan. 1 and that 1.2 million would follow in each of the first three months of the year.
So far, enrollment levels haven’t come close to those targets, although enrollment has surged in recent weeks.
The March 31 enrollment levels are likely to be seen as a referendum on whether the website and the exchanges have recovered. It also will show whether younger, healthier adults — the ones needed to make the financial calculations underlying the Affordable Care Act work — signed up. The White House has been enlisting mothers to hector their kids on the reasons to do that.
No other issue looms as more critical to Obama’s legacy, for good or ill. “George W. Bush is going to go down in history as the president of the Iraq war,” Cohen says. “Obama is going to go down in history as the president of health care.”
Will Iran make a deal?
Concern about the regime in Iran developing nuclear weapons has been one of the most serious foreign policy challenges facing Obama and his predecessor — and one complicated by the fact that Washington and Tehran haven’t had diplomatic relations since the Iranian hostage crisis erupted more than three decades ago.
Even so, just before Thanksgiving, Iran and the West announced the first steps toward what could be a landmark deal. Tehran agreed to roll back or freeze parts of its nuclear program for six months in exchange for relief from some international economic sanctions. At the end of the six months, the two sides are supposed to have reached a more sweeping, longer-term agreement.
The six-month timetable is expected to be triggered shortly, after technical issues now being discussed in Geneva are worked out. The accord can be renewed for another six months to continue negotiations, if needed, which would push back the deadline to the end of the year.
Obama has been trying to put out fires on Capitol Hill, threatening to veto a push to tighten sanctions on Iran. He also has had to calm concerns raised by leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia, who argue Tehran is just trying to buy time without actually forfeiting its nuclear capability.
For the president, concluding the deal would “add to the theme that wars were closed off or prevented from happening” during his watch, says Ray Takeyh, a former senior adviser on Iran at the State Department and author of The Guardians of the Revolution: Iran’s Approach to the World. Takeyh says Obama has been involved in crafting strategy on this issue. “If it works, it will always be an achievement for this president.”
For second-term presidents, midterm elections have a history of being harsh.
In 2006, George W. Bush’s sixth year, the GOP lost control of the House and Senate. In 1986, Ronald Reagan’s sixth year, Republicans lost control of the Senate. While Democrats managed to pick up four House seats in 1998, during Bill Clinton’s second term, no president in modern times has seen his party gain control of the House or Senate in the sixth year of his tenure.
When Republicans bore the brunt of the blame for the government shutdown last fall, some Democrats were buoyed about their long-shot to regain control of the House, which would require scoring a gain of 17 seats. More feasible is a Republican takeover of the Senate. The GOP needs a net gain of six, and Democrats are playing defense: 21 Democratic-held seats are up, compared with 14 Republican-held seats.
Prime targets: The seven Democratic seats in states Mitt Romney carried last year. (They are Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.)
Facing a Congress under unified GOP control would complicate Obama’s final two years in office, making it harder for him to pass legislation on immigration or climate change, restore funding for education and win confirmation for appointees to everything from federal agencies to the Supreme Court. Congressional committees controlled by the other side are more likely to launch investigations and summon Cabinet secretaries to Capitol Hill for a grilling.
"I was there for a majority of Democrats and I was there for a majority of Republicans and I was there for when it was 50-50," says former Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln, who lost her bid for a third term in 2010. The differences for the president under each scenario were stark, she says. "It’s pretty important."
Obama watched Republicans gain control of the House during his first midterm, in 2010, when the debate over health care contributed to a Democratic loss of 63 seats, a post-World War II record. Losing the Senate in his second midterm would mean he would leave the White House with the Democratic Party in significantly weaker condition than when he arrived.
Obama’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq helped him claim the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton in 2008, and voters’ weariness over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to his victory in the general election over Republican John McCain. One of those wars is over: The last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq two years ago.
Force levels in Afghanistan have been steadily declining, and the U.N. mandate for combat operations expires at the end of next year.
What happens then isn’t clear. For months, the United States has been trying to convince Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement setting the ground rules for a continued American presence for the next 10 years. It would allow several thousand U.S. troops to remain to train and advise Afghan forces. Counterterrorism operations by special operations forces could continue.
By Dec. 31, 2014, the U.S. mission will be revamped in Afghanistan — or, if no agreement is reached, it might be ended entirely, 13 years after the war began. That so-called zero option once seemed an improbable threat of leverage in negotiations. but analysts no longer rule it out as impossible.
Given the eagerness of most Americans to see this chapter close, failing to reach a deal probably wouldn’t cost Obama politically at home, says Vali Nasr, a former adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration who is now dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. But the substantive impact over the longer term could be catastrophic.
"It becomes a problem down the road if we don’t have an agreement with Karzai, we end up going to a zero option with Afghanistan and the place disintegrates into civil war," he says. "If Afghanistan unravels, the reasons that got us there in the first place may very well return, and we may very well be put in the same position 10 years from now and have to go back in."
That debate just might be raging a year from now.