President Barack Obama had the Worst Year in Washington … again

Published on December 12, 2014

Every week, I award someone the least desirable prize in town: the worst week in Washington. If you’re caught in a scandal, fired from a big job or embarrassed by a gaffe, you’ll be sure to read me offering you a hearty “congrats, or something.” But every December comes the biggest recognition of all: the worst year in Washington. For this award, you really had to blow it, and 2014 offered lots of contenders. Here’s who took the honor – along with the people who had a really bad year, a bad year, a not-so-good year, a good year and the best year in Washington.

MORE:
Really bad year: Dan Snyder
Bad year: The Secret Service
Not-so-good year: Chris Christie
Good year: Elizabeth Warren
Best year: Mitch McConnell

Let me know if you agree in the comments below.

Worst year: President Obama, for losses at home and crises abroad

In 2014, President Obama's past caught up with him.

His sixth year in office was, inarguably, his worst, when the problems that had been building throughout his second term all came crashing down around him.

The year began with Obama proposing a set of reforms to the National Security Agency, a result of ongoing national security leaks, and ended with midterm elections that saw his party lose its Senate majority largely because of the president's unpopularity.

In between were continued challenges to the Affordable Care Act, America's reentry into Iraq — a war the president had long vowed to exit — and memoirs from former Cabinet officials questioning Obama's decision-making and judgment.

Twelve months ago, we also awarded Obama the worst year in 2013, calling 2013 his "lost year" because he spent it salvaging old accomplishments rather than building his legacy. But even then, we saw a possible path back to relevance. Now, all that appears left for the Obama presidency is a narrowing of both vision and accomplishment.

What tied together all of 2014's failures, stumbles and necessary evils was a growing sense among the public that Obama simply isn't up to the job to which he has been twice elected.

Consider this: In CNN-Opinion Research Corp. polling in December 2008, more than three-quarters of Americans said that the phrase "can manage the government effectively" applied to Obama; by March 2014, just 43 percent said the same. (And that was before problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs were revealed later that month.) A late 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll found a similar result, with just 41 percent of respondents saying Obama "is a good manager." A Pew Research Center survey in July showed that 44 percent of respondents believed that Obama was "able to get things done," a number not far from the 42 percent of people who said the same of George W. Bush at a similar point in his presidency.

Losing records

It's normal for a president's party to lose seats in Congress over the course of his term. But Democrats' losses during President Obama's time in office have been especially large. Among presidents elected to two terms in the past 50 years, no other saw as much erosion of his party in the House through his second midterm election, and only one, Bill Clinton, suffered as many setbacks in the Senate.

Barack Obama

-69
HOUSE
-11
SENATE

George W. Bush

-17
HOUSE
-1
SENATE

Bill Clinton

-47
HOUSE
-12
SENATE

Ronald Reagan

-16
HOUSE
-8
SENATE

Richard Nixon

-49
HOUSE
-6
SENATE

Sources: Office of the Historian, House of Representatives; Senate Historical Office

The Bush comparison matters enormously. Remember that Obama was elected in large part on his promise to restore basic competence to governing in the wake of Bush's missteps on issues from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina. (This was the president who made "Heckuva job, Brownie" a slogan for federal ineptitude.)

Every early move Obama made — from his campaign promise of "change" to the "team of rivals" idea for his Cabinet — was driven by the notion that this president, unlike the man he replaced, was all about turning the government into a pure meritocracy that would run things right.

But that idea began to unravel with a rapid-fire series of scandals: the revelation that the IRS was targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny, the Edward Snowden leaks about NSA surveillance and the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov, to name three that happened in 2013.

That unraveling sped up over the past 12 months — fueled, interestingly enough, by foreign policy stumbles by the president and his team.

Obama's longtime pledge to "reset" relations with Russia was exposed as frighteningly naive when President Vladimir Putin moved into eastern Ukraine with impunity. Obama's response to Putin's aggression — sanctions — was derided as using a spray bottle to put out a five-alarm fire.

Then there was Iraq, the "dumb war" that Obama was elected in no small measure to end. He seemed to do that once, removing the last combat troops from the country in 2011. But then came the rise of the Islamic State, the militant group that now controls much of Iraq and Syria, made particularly infamous by its heinous tactic of beheading captives.

By June, Obama had approved the deployment of almost 300 new U.S. troops to Iraq. In early September, after the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff, Obama approved sending more troops to the region. In November, he authorized the deployment of 1,500 additional troops, bringing the total to roughly 3,000. The cost for this redeployment in Iraq? About $5.6 billion.

As if that weren't enough past-haunting-the-present for Obama, two memoirs released this year by former Cabinet officials cast him as something short of a decisive commander in chief.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton struck first, not only deriding Obama's "don't do stupid s---" foreign policy vision as less than visionary, but also blasting her onetime boss for not intervening earlier in the Syrian civil war and thereby potentially reducing the Islamic State threat. Yet even that critique was nothing compared with what former CIA chief and defense secretary Leon Panetta leveled at Obama in his memoir "Worthy Fights." Panetta said the president had "lost his way" in matters ranging from the fight against the Islamic State to the budgetary process. He condemned Obama's "frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause" and said the president too often "relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader." (Former defense secretary Robert Gates's memoir was also tough — but it went after Vice President Biden more than Obama.)

Then there was the matter of the midterm elections. Republicans badly wanted to nationalize the campaign around the unpopular Obama, even as Democrats, trying desperately to hold their Senate majority, were doing everything they could to make voters forget about the guy sitting in the White House.

Enter Obama at Northwestern University in early October, delivering what was billed as a major speech on the country's economic progress under his leadership. About halfway through that address, he uttered these four sentences: "I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle's pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them."

By the next morning, Republicans were using those lines in TV ads bashing Democrats as Obama clones. Already-apoplectic Democratic strategists went bananas, insisting that the president, whom they felt had ignored and underappreciated them for years, was now sabotaging any chance they had of avoiding a horrendous election.

That frustration boiled over the day after the vote — news flash: the Democrats lost the Senate, badly — when David Krone, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's chief of staff, blasted Obama in a Washington Post story. "We were never going to get on the same page," Krone said of the White House and Senate Democrats. "We were beating our heads against the wall."

Way back in March 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama delivered one of his most memorable speeches, addressing the controversial statements of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and reflecting on race in America. In his remarks, Obama drew on William Faulkner's famous line from "Requiem for a Nun": "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

That has never proved truer for Obama's political fortunes than in 2014. The past kept complicating his present — and clouding his future.

President Obama, for becoming a victim of history rather than a writer of it, you had the worst year in Washington. Congrats, or something.

Dan Snyder, for disasters on and off the field

Well, at least Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, won something this year.

In late November, Rolling Stone magazine named him the worst owner in all of professional sports. Snyder's "victory" was a fitting end to a year that — even in the annals of Redskins stinkdom — has to be right at the top when it comes to being at the bottom.

First, the on-the-field problems. "Franchise" quarterback Robert Griffin III went down in the first quarter of the season's second game with a dislocated ankle. That put backup Kirk Cousins in charge of the offense. He quickly proved he was better at throwing the ball to the other team than to his own. Then Griffin came back and, well, stunk. That led to his benching — and possible departure from the team at the end of the year — and the installation of Colt McCoy, he of the now 7-17 lifetime record as a starter, as the starter.

Remember that Snyder's team gave up three first-round draft picks and one second-rounder for the rights to draft Griffin in 2012. And as of this writing, the Skins were 3-10, their fifth double-digit-loss season in the past six years. Next year may bring a new quarterback — or perhaps a new head coach, if Jay Gruden's desire to part ways with Griffin doesn't go over well with his bosses.

Off the field, things weren't any better for Snyder. Calls to get rid of the "Redskins" name burgeoned over the past year; 50 Democratic senators signed a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in May urging that the name be changed. The next month, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team's patent on the name and logo, saying they are offensive to Native Americans.

Snyder, displaying his usual tin ear, promised the name would never be changed. At this rate, never is also when the Redskins will be a relevant NFL franchise under this owner.

The Secret Service, for lapses in its most important job

One of the two words in Secret Service is "secret" — as in quiet, behind the scenes, seen but not heard.

This year was anything but that for the organization, which had already come under scrutiny for a 2012 scandal involving agents hiring prostitutes during a presidential trip in Cartagena, Colombia.

Where to begin about this year's travails?

Probably with the story of Omar Gonzalez, the man who in September leapt the White House fence, entered the building carrying a knife and made it all the way to the East Room — in the back of the first floor — before being apprehended. The breach was a result of a series of failed procedures. An attack dog trained to stop fence-jumpers was not released. The guard tasked with watching the door where Gonzalez gained entry wasn't there. An alarm designed to alert everyone on the grounds to a breach had been muted.

Or maybe you should start with the revelations — first reported by The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig — that the Secret Service had badly mishandled a 2011 incident in which a number of shots hit the White House while Sasha Obama and Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama's mother, were in the building. It took the agency four days to realize that bullets had actually hit the residence after an initial conclusion that the sounds were simply a car backfiring.

Or even the time in September when an armed security contractor with prior arrests was allowed onto the same elevator as President Obama during a trip to Atlanta. Making matters worse? The president was not informed of the security breach.

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson endured a brutal House hearing in late September — "I wish to God you protected the White House like you're protecting your reputation today," Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said to her — before resigning.

The only good news for the Secret Service: It's almost impossible for 2015 to be as bad as 2014.

Chris Christie, for recovering from Bridgegate

This year started a lot worse for Chris Christie than it ended.

Back in January, the Republican governor of New Jersey was slogging through "Bridgegate" — the scandal that involved two of his top aides ordering the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge as retribution against their political enemies in the Garden State.

Christie conducted a two-hour news conference on Jan. 9 in which he insisted that the aides had acted without his knowledge or consent. "This is the exception — it is not the rule — of what's happened over the last four years in this administration," he insisted.

Things got worse for Christie before they got better. Local and national media dug into every aspect of the story, badly derailing the governor's attempts to use his resounding 2013 reelection victory as a springboard for a planned presidential bid. (Before the scandal, that prospect had seemed quite real: We had even awarded Christie the "best year in Washington" for 2013, concluding that the governor was "atop the Republican presidential field.")

But, as summer turned to fall and no new revelations emerged linking Christie to Bridgegate, he began to regain his footing.

In his role as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie barnstormed the country in support of his candidates, collecting cash and using his celebrity to draw positive attention in the local media. And on Election Day, Republicans netted two governors' mansions — a great result for a party that was defending eight more governorships than Democrats. Credit accrued to Christie, especially the $106 million he helped raise for the cause.

The election results may help Christie turn the page on scandal — and allow the governor to rewrite himself into the 2016 presidential race.

Elizabeth Warren, for her winning message

If there's a beating heart of the post-Obama Democratic Party, it's Elizabeth Warren, the crusading populist senator from Massachusetts who can't seem to kick the notion, lovingly encouraged by her supporters, that she should run for president in 2016.

If there was a positive story for Democrats in the 2014 elections — and it was slim pickings — it was Warren, one of the only nationally known Democrats willing and able to go anywhere and everywhere to support Democratic candidates.

Warren took her anti-Wall Street message to Kentucky for Alison Lundergan Grimes, West Virginia for Natalie Tennant, Michigan for Gary Peters and Oregon for Sen. Jeff Merkley. That's a quartet of visits it's hard to imagine any Democrat not named Bill Clinton pulling off.

"She's proving that she can be a good Democratic soldier by helping the party where and when it needs her most, and she's proving that her appeal and the appeal of her populist message extends far beyond deep-blue Massachusetts," National Journal's Emily Schultheis wrote in July.

After the midterms, liberals insisted that what lost was the cautious moderation of the likes of Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), while proud Democrats like Warren were winners. "Warren was the most popular Democrat on the campaign trail this cycle — in red states, purple states and blue states," said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

For many liberal Democrats, Warren is the populist they thought they were getting — but didn't — with Barack Obama in 2008. In an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll last month, 56 percent of respondents agreed that "the economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me," more than 20 points higher than 12 years ago.

Even if Warren and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi failed Thursday to stop a spending bill that eliminated some financial regulations, their message is clear: You can’t ignore the party’s liberal wing.

Though Warren has said repeatedly that she is not running for president in 2016, her performance and message in 2014 suggest that if she did, Hillary Clinton would be right to worry.

Mitch McConnell, for getting the job of his dreams

When Sen. Mitch McConnell took the stage in Louisville on Nov. 5, the notoriously stern and partisan Kentucky Republican was a smiling statesman.

"When the American people choose divided government, I don't think it means they don't want us to do anything," McConnell said. "I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement."

It was easy for McConnell to be gracious. He was less than 24 hours removed from not only a massive 15-point reelection victory — in a race Democrats had insisted would be his toughest challenge ever — but also sweeping GOP victories across the country that ensured he would be the Senate majority leader in January.

For McConnell, it was the realization of a lifelong dream, a not-insignificant accomplishment for a man who has been around politics since the 1960s. McConnell — like Harry Reid, whom he will replace in the Senate's top job — is not a flashy politician who surged through the ranks in record time. He is a plotter and strategist of the highest order, a man who always has a plan and executes it relentlessly.

Now he will be the leading GOP voice in Washington — at least until the party picks a 2016 presidential nominee. His task will be to unite a fractious Republican Party in the capital and demonstrate to the nation that the GOP can be much more than the party of "no" or the party of "not Obama."

McConnell may have failed in his famous goal to make Obama a "one-term president." But now, with Obama's days in office counting down, McConnell has the chance not only to lead and (try to) unite his party, but also to redefine for the broader public what it means to be a Republican.

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