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For official Washington, a truly horrible year

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Who had the worst year in Washington? The answer is easy: official Washington.

In the past year, Americans witnessed the diminishment of President Obama’s political standing and credibility; the least productive Congress in decades; a partial shutdown of the government caused by a misguided tea party Republican strategy; the deeply flawed implementation of the Affordable Care Act; and the legal and political fallout from revelations about the National Security Agency’s intelligence-gathering activities.

Everything on that list helped to undermine public confidence in politicians, political leaders and government institutions. There is very little to be seen on the positive side of the ledger that would offset the damage done by the country’s political leadership.

Lots of people and groups had bad years. Obama ends 2013 at a low ebb, and because he is the president, his problems stand out. But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) didn’t exactly have a year to remember, either. Democrats in Congress rate even lower than the president in the eyes of the public. Republicans rank below both the president and the Democrats. The tea party may have found new energy in its quest to block Obamacare, but it has lost ground with the public.

Official Washington, with the media as active participants, has become obsessed with winners and losers — the question of how much one side gains from the other side’s losses — and with the maneuvering and calculations of the moment. It has been a banner year for measuring ups and downs, at least for those inside the Beltway.

What counts for most Americans is something different. They expect at least minimal competence and productivity from those they send to Washington to represent them. The politicians would be hard pressed to argue that people got their money’s worth this year. All should be worried about their own problems. But it is the collective damage to the political system that should really have them concerned.

Everyone is responsible in some way for the year’s problems. The president bears the blame for the health-care mess, which has done as much as anything to raise doubts about the federal government’s capacity to manage big initiatives.

Republicans forced the government shutdown. Their party’s tea party wing has brought obstructionism to new levels. And those in the executive branch overseeing the health-care law and the intelligence-gathering programs also helped create public doubts about the competence of government.

External factors have contributed, as well. Deep partisan polarization, both in Washington and around the country, makes compromise difficult for both philosophical and political reasons. The economy’s uneven recovery continues to impose strains for many families, which, in turn, generates resentment of the ruling class. Washington is seen as much as ever as a place that looks out for those with power and money at the expense of everyone else.

Will things improve in 2014? Maybe. This year is ending with some bright spots. The bipartisan budget agreement should bring relief from the conflict over funding the government, providing opportunities to deal with other pending issues, from the farm bill to immigration.

There is still the debt-ceiling fight to get through early next year. Republicans say they want some concessions from the White House in return for raising the limit, and the president said Friday that he would not negotiate over the need to pay past bills. But if Republicans flinched at letting the country default during the shutdown, are they prepared to risk it next year?

Brighter still is the latest evidence of a recovering economy. Economic growth in the last quarter was strong. The economy appears to be gathering some momentum — enough for the Federal Reserve to begin to taper its bond-buying policies.

However, unemployment, at 7 percent, remains too high and labor-force participation too low. Long-term unemployment is an even bigger problem, a condition that not only damages individual lives but also has a corrosive effect on society. Unemployment insurance for those who have been out of work for a lengthy period will expire shortly and will be at the top of the agenda when Congress returns in January.

At a news conference Friday, Obama said he hoped 2014 could be a year of action. “It’s probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship,” he said in reference to legislative action in the past week. “But it’s also fair to say that we’re not condemned to endless gridlock. There are areas where we can work together.”

Immigration is the biggest issue on which there is still optimism that Democrats and Republicans can find a way to compromise. But that optimism is tempered by the reality that on the critical question of a path to citizenship or legal status, many Republicans remain staunchly opposed.

The president may want 2014 to be a year of action, but it is also an election year. Next fall’s political climate is hard to read this far out. At this early point, Republicans expect to hold the House. But Democrats are at risk of losing control of the Senate, which would mean major problems for Obama’s final two years in office. Many of the GOP’s possible gains are in red states. But to win the majority, Republicans will have to defeat a number of incumbent Democrats.

Whether official Washington has a better year in 2014 depends on many things, but two people stand out as keys: the president and the speaker. Given all that has transpired between them, it’s likely that a part of the history of the Obama presidency will be devoted to the relationship between these two leaders.

Both profess a desire to govern constructively. Both have said for years that they are prepared to compromise. In 2011, they entered into negotiations in good faith and came close to producing something grand. Their relationship has never been the same since those negotiations collapsed.

The year ahead will once again put both leaders to the test. Boehner manages an unruly House. He and his Republicans will continue to do what they can to frustrate implementation of the health-care law. Obama no longer hides his disdain for the congressional Republican hard-liners or his impatience with the demands of legislative give and take — a part of presidential leadership that he never warmed to. That’s problem one for each to overcome.

But a larger issue is what path each chooses to take in the coming year. How will they respond when finding some common ground on, say, immigration or fiscal issues or the economy collides with demands from their colleagues to help put their parties in the strongest position to win the midterm elections?

Their choices will not be easy. Obama and Boehner are rivals with constituencies to defend and represent. But as the past year has shown, they also are responsible for restoring the health of a political system that has lost the trust and confidence of a majority of Americans.

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