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President Obama heads to Hawaii tomorrow with his family. It's become a Christmas tradition for the Obamas, and the president always says how good it is to get away from Washington. Well, this holiday, that's likely to be especially true. For President Obama, 2013 was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: One year ago, when the ball dropped on Times Square and people sang "Auld Lang Syne," President Obama was supposed to be in Hawaii. Instead, he was in Washington. The country was going over the so-called fiscal cliff. Late at night on January 1, Obama walked into the White House briefing room to announce a deal and to express a hope for 2013. You could even call it a new year's resolution.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A little bit less drama, a little less brinksmanship, not scare the heck out of folks quite as much.
SHAPIRO: In literature, that would be called foreshadowing. In politics, it was just a rocky start to a rocky year. Three weeks later, the White House saw President Obama's second inauguration as a new start. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded the National Mall. His election victory had given him a two-thirds approval rating. And the president had every reason to believe the start of the second term would be productive.
OBAMA: A decade of war is now ending.
SHAPIRO: The second inaugural declared a triumphant victory over challenges foreign and domestic.
OBAMA: An economic recovery has begun.
SHAPIRO: In lofty, poetic language, he laid out ambitious goals for the year ahead.
OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity...
SHAPIRO: On that cold January day, a sweeping immigration overhaul seemed possible. And after the murder of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School a month earlier, even gun control felt within reach.
OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.
SHAPIRO: Within a few months, his soaring rhetoric crashed. An ambitious agenda for gun control got whittled down to a narrow expansion of background checks. But even with overwhelming public support, that modest proposal fell to a Senate filibuster in April. Obama was furious.
OBAMA: The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill.
SHAPIRO: Obama promised to continue fighting, but that battle was lost. And it was on to immigration. In the presidential election, Republicans had only won a quarter of the Latino vote. They seemed eager to expand the party's appeal. And in June, a sweeping immigration bill did pass the Senate, 68-to-32. Then, in the House, speaker John Boehner said no.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The House does not intend to take up the Senate bill. The House is going to do its own job on developing an immigration bill.
SHAPIRO: Even that never happened, meaning the president's second major domestic initiative sputtered out.
Obama gave speeches on job creation, infrastructure investment, tax reform - none of them went anywhere. Then a bomb dropped in the Guardian newspaper.
ED SNOWDEN: My name is Ed Snowden. I'm 29 years old. I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA.
SHAPIRO: The National Security Agency. Snowden had walked out with untold numbers of classified documents. American prosecutors indicted him for espionage. Their inability to bring him to justice only made the Obama team look more impotent. The leaker slipped from Hong Kong to Russia, revealing some of America's most closely held secrets on the way. Russia openly defied America's request to hand Snowden over.
And from Europe to Latin America, U.S. allies were furious to learn they were caught in the American spying dragnet. German President Angela Merkel was livid that American spies had tapped her cell phone. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff raged through an interpreter at the U.N. General Assembly.
PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: (Through Translator) Meddling in such a manner in the life and affairs of other countries is a breach of international law. And as such, it is an affrontment(ph) to the principles that should otherwise govern relations among countries.
SHAPIRO: Soon after that, she cancelled a state dinner in Washington.
In domestic and foreign affairs, Obama seemed to be in reactive mode. After Syria used chemical weapons, Obama tried to seize the reins, leading an international run-up to a military strike on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But then Britain's parliament voted against an attack, despite Prime Minister David Cameron's pleading on behalf of his friend Barack Obama.
PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: No one could in any way describe him as a president who wants to involve America in more wars in the Middle East. But he profoundly believes that an important red line has been crossed in an appalling way, and that is why he supports action in this case.
SHAPIRO: The president seemed undeterred. He announced that he would seek approval from Congress for a strike on Syria. But with little domestic support, he soon abandoned that plan.
By this point, Republicans were feeling empowered. They refused to fund the federal government and raise the debt ceiling, demanding that Obama gut the health care law. They expected a weakened Obama to cave. But the president had had this fight with Republicans before. And this time, on this issue, he vowed not to give in.
OBAMA: We can't make extortion routine as part of our democracy. Democracy doesn't function this way.
SHAPIRO: The partial government shutdown ended in mid-October after two weeks. And for a moment, it looked like Obama could regain the ground he'd lost over the year. Americans blamed Republicans for the shutdown and Obama came off looking like the adult in the room. But it wasn't a clean win. The president skipped some important trade meetings during the shutdown, further undermining global confidence in the U.S. And as Obama himself predicted, the self-inflicted wound of the shutdown undermined a belief that government can do good things.
Then came HealthCare.gov. The unusable website embodied every stereotype of government incompetence. Millions of people were unable to sign up for health coverage. Millions of others were told they would lose their insurance, despite Obama's repeated promises to the contrary.
OBAMA: And I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general.
SHAPIRO: This was Obama's top domestic priority, a hard-won achievement that barely made it through Congress and the Supreme Court. And unlike the other setbacks this year, Obama had nobody to blame for the botched rollout but his own team.
OBAMA: And again, that's on us, which is why - that's on me. And that's why I'm trying to fix it.
SHAPIRO: So, here we are at the end of the year. Congress managed to pass a small-scale budget deal. Yesterday's NSA report could provide a way out of the spying scandal. The healthcare website appears functional. And Obama can point to a few international breakthroughs: a short-term nuclear deal with Iran, Syria giving up its chemical weapons. Still, big picture 2013 was a terrible year for Obama. No wonder this year he followed the old advice about having a friend in Washington - he got another dog.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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