IF ONE word has defined the summaries we’ve seen of 2013, it might be “worst.”
The insight that last year was the most dismal of Barack Obama’s presidency is so well-established that it might be etched onto the Lincoln Memorial. Following a reelection victory, he lost a major push on gun control and faced a hostile House. Confidence dropped in his leadership abroad. His rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was incompetent.
On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Supreme Court in 2013 audaciously gutted a core section of the Voting Rights Act. And Congress seemed to set a new standard for dysfunction. Compared to previous Congresses, lawmakers last year passed practically nothing. In the House, Republican ideologues closed the government in a foolish attempt to kill Obamacare. In the Senate, a GOP tantrum over confirming judicial nominees led Democrats to brashly restructure the chamber’s rules.
Still, we won’t join the gloom-mongers. That’s because last year also saw the desirable results of Americans of good will recognizing and beginning to face up to national problems.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) agreed on a modest budget deal that eased unnecessary budget cuts and will spare the country another round of fiscal brinkmanship. Defying the yelps of conservative bomb-throwers, the House passed the deal by a wide margin. Though not a major policy victory, this should serve as an example of the sensible, incremental progress that divided lawmakers can achieve.
The Supreme Court’s term will be remembered most for its crucial rulings on gay and lesbian rights. The justices struck down the worst parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and they dismissed an appeal to reinstate California’s same-sex marriage ban. The rulings are now factoring into legal proceedings across the country. In other states, such as Hawaii and Illinois, lawmakers voted to legalize same-sex unions, making 2013 another banner year for gay and lesbian equality.
By the end of December, even the ACA rollout was going better. Mr. Obama’s crash team had fixed most of HealthCare.gov’s major bugs. Enrollment spiked; roughly 2 million Americans had chosen private insurance plans and 4 million had signed up for Medicaid. If the policy ends up working well, the benefits of greatly expanded coverage will dwarf the reform’s much-publicized costs.
The economy is seeing new signs of economic health. Gross domestic product expanded at a 4.1 percent annual rate in the third quarter, the briskest pace in two years. The Federal Reserve felt confident enough to begin tapering its monetary stimulus programs. Equities markets posted a strong year, which helps anyone with a retirement account.
Great challenges remain for 2014. Economic growth may perk up, but inequality remains a problem that tugs at the country’s social fabric. Lawmakers will have to raise the debt limit next year without more brinksmanship. Syria’s civil war continues to kill thousands while the Obama administration casts around for a coherent policy. And Congress has yet to address the problem of undocumented immigrants.
Both parties should also keep the long-term federal budget in mind. Congress might be able to put federal accounts on a better path via the Ryan-Murray model — through small, incremental improvements, rather than a grand bargain. But to see even small successes, leaders must emulate the cooperative achievements, not the partisan rancor, of 2013.