All year long, I pick the winners of the Worst Week in Washington prize — those politicians, bureaucrats, sports stars, business leaders and other inhabitants of Planet Beltway who stand out for all the wrong reasons. During 2013, the honorees have ranged from the president to the president’s dog, from meteorologists to comedians, from Supreme Court justices to NFL head coaches (well, mainly one NFL head coach).
Winning the Worst Week in Washington is one thing. To win the Worst Year in Washington, you need to be very good at being very bad, or have really bad luck. Previous Worst Year winners have included then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele (remember him?), the tea party movement (always a contender) and Congress (yes, all of it).
This past year offered plenty of candidates, but who is most deserving of this least desirable recognition? (Hint: He’s still in power but has little of it these days.) I also decide who had a really bad year, merely a bad year, a not-so-good year, a good year and, yes, who had the best year in Washington. Let me know, in the comments section or on Twitter (#worstyear), if you agree.
Squandering the chance to build a legacy
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 reelection in 2014 fleeing for cover and comforted Republicans still smarting from their party’s 2012 defeat.
Who had the worst year in Washington?
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 reelected 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, Conn.
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.