Politics & Policy

Obama’s Awful Year

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Don’t let the 2016 campaign news obscure a year of defeats for the president.

Each year, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post names one or two political figures as having “the Worst Year in Washington.” This year he selected Hillary Clinton, for the glaring scandal of her personal e-mail server’s housing classified information, and Jeb Bush for his thoroughly disappointing run as a presidential candidate.

They’re perfectly justifiable choices, and it’s understandable that Cillizza might not want to repeat his 2014 winner, President Obama. The commander-in-chief is only briefly mentioned in Cillizza’s wrap-up of the year, which also covers Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, comedienne Amy Schumer, the Washington Nationals, and Donald Trump. But amongst all of the year’s busy news, it’s worth noting that Obama had another awful year, full of defeats in policy, public opinion and the courts, as well as continuing scandals and bitter karma.

Begin with the continued rise of ISIS and an ISIS-inspired attack on American soil in San Bernardino.

Obama’s widely-panned Sunday evening speech on combating ISIS is fresh in our minds; he’s haunted by the fact that the day of the attack, in an interview with CBS News, he declared, “Our homeland has never been more protected by more effective intelligence and law-enforcement professionals at every level than they are now.” In the weeks between the Paris attack and San Bernardino, Obama told the public there was no known “specific and credible threat” to the U.S. — a point that in retrospect only emphasized how blindsided authorities were by the San Bernardino attack.

The day before the Paris attack, Obama said it was “premature” to call ISIS the greatest terror threat in the world and declared ISIS was contained — he later emphasized he meant militarily, in Iraq and Syria.

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After Paris, Obama mocked Republicans for fearing “widows and orphans” among the Syrian refugees and insisted refugees were allowed in only after “rigorous screening and security checks” administered by the Department of Homeland Security. Days ago we learned that San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan, and no one noticed that she openly supported violent jihad on social media. We also learned her husband was in touch over the phone and via social media with more than one international-terrorism suspect.

It’s easy to forget that in mid November, after the Paris attacks, numerous congressional Democrats started publicly expressing doubts and frustration with the administration’s approach to ISIS. Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told reporters that the Obama administration ignored the rise of ISIS in 2012 because it contradicted the narrative of the president’s reelection campaign. More than 50 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military’s Central Command filed formal complaints that their reports on ISIS and al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria were being inappropriately altered by senior officials.

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Elsewhere in the war on terror, a prisoner released from Guantanamo Bay in 2012 became one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Bowe Bergdahl, the Army soldier that Obama traded for five high-value Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, was charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, did an interview where he compared himself to fictional heroic spy Jason Bourne.

It was a rough year for American national security. In addition to lingering questions about the security of classified and sensitive information on Hillary Clinton’s personal e-mail server, the Office of Personnel Management revealed in June that it suffered two apparently separate breaches of its computer system, meaning the sensitive information of about 21.5 million current and former federal workers is now in the hands of foreign hackers. (The Washington Post reported that the breach forced the CIA to withdraw personnel from China, but Director of National Intelligence James Clapper disputed the report, without going into detail.)

#share#Yes, President Obama’s deal with Iran on its nuclear program is moving forward, but only because of his insistence that the deal wasn’t technically a treaty and didn’t require ratification by the Senate. All Republicans and four Democrats voted against the agreement; 42 Democrats stuck together. The president and his team completely failed to win over any critics or skeptics and lost the public argument. By September, just 21 percent approved of the agreement, while 49 percent disapproved. From July to September of 2015, support for the deal among Democrats dropped from 50 percent to 42 percent.

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Similarly, President Obama talked a lot about gun control in 2015, and managed to move public opinion away from his stance. After a shooting in Oregon in October, Obama addressed the country and declared, “This is something we should politicize” and “this is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.” He pointed approvingly to Australia, which implemented a mandatory national gun-buyback program. The editor of a local newspaper asked the president not to visit after the shooting, contending the speech amounted to a decision to “stand on the corpses of our loved ones and make some kind of political point.” By October, more Americans had a favorable opinion of the National Rifle Association (58 percent) than of Obama (46 percent). Last week the CBS News/New York Times poll found that just 44 percent support an assault-weapons ban while 50 percent oppose one, the lowest level of support ever and the highest level of opposition ever.

The new Republican-controlled Senate and House failed to repeal Obamacare, but the outlook for the president’s signature domestic legislation grew considerably murkier in 2015. Twelve of the 23 health-insurance co-ops largely funded through Obamacare by federal loans failed; as a result roughly 700,000 Americans were told they needed to get a new insurance plan. In November, UnitedHealth Group, the biggest U.S. health-insurance company, said it had suffered major losses on policies sold on the Obamacare exchanges and would consider withdrawing from them.

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The New York Times found that in many states, more than half the plans offered for sale through HealthCare.gov have a deductible of $3,000 or more — leaving many purchasers to conclude they can’t actually afford to go to the doctor despite paying for insurance.

The law remains unpopular in national opinion polling. The day before Election Day, outgoing Democratic Kentucky governor Steve Beshear boasted, “In 2016, I predict the Democratic nominee will make [Obamacare] a major issue and will pound the Republicans into the dust with it.” The next day, anti-Obamacare Republican Matt Bevin beat Beshear’s successor, Jack Conway, 53 percent to 44 percent.

#related#Defenders of the president will be quick to point to the unemployment rate at 5 percent, contending he’s presiding over a roaring economy. This year Democrat Bernie Sanders received some attention for echoing a point made by Republicans during the Obama era: The official unemployment rate excludes those working part time who want full-time work, and those who have stopped searching but if offered a job would take it. Sanders contended the “real” unemployment rate is higher than 10 percent; he pointed out that youth unemployment is particularly high. Wages remain mostly flat; when President Obama took office in January 2009, the average weekly earnings of rank-and-file workers in the private sector was $296.88. The preliminary figure for October 2015 is $306.80 — a 3 percent increase over seven years.

Finally, Obama’s biggest second-term agenda item was immigration reform, and to great fanfare in November 2014, after the midterm elections, he announced an executive order that made about 5 million illegal immigrants eligible for a new legal status that would defer their deportations and allow them to work legally.

But in February, a federal District Court judge in Texas put that order on hold, ruling that the administration was imposing costs on states such as Texas beyond its authority. In November, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, ruled 2 to 1 against an appeal by the Obama administration, saying a lawsuit brought by 26 states to block the executive order was likely to succeed at trial. Judge Jerry Smith concluded, “The Immigration and Naturalization Act flatly does not permit the reclassification of millions of illegal aliens as lawfully present and thereby make them newly eligible for a host of federal and state benefits, including work authorization.” The administration intends to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the year wasn’t all bad for the president. The scenery in that selfie-video he took in Alaska looked pretty good.


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