Obama Fails To Accomplish Ambitious Agenda In 2013
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
Here's a way to look at the year 2013 for President Barack Obama: He began the year with two-thirds of Americas saying they approved of the job he was doing. He's ending the year with that number around 40 percent.
He began fresh off a hard-fought electoral victory, going into his second term with a pretty ambitious agenda. He's ending the year with many of his priorities stalled.
To walk us back through the president's year, we're joined by NPR White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro. Hey, Ari.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi.
INSKEEP: So, let's go back to January. I mean, the president delivered his second inaugural address, and it was a speech that was described as really ambitious and really progressive, the signs of a man, like any second-term president who was really freed from the pressure to run for office again.
SHAPIRO: Right. He had just won this historic reelection victory. He talked about wars ending, economies recovering. And he laid out this ambitious agenda, from the environment to gay rights. And two of the big things he talked about were gun control and immigration.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK 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, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
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.
GREENE: The quiet lanes of Newtown, of course, talking about Connecticut and that horrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
SHAPIRO: Just one month earlier. Yeah.
GREENE: He got very passionate about gun control, but quickly realized that that's not an easy fight to have.
SHAPIRO: He had this long list of things he wanted done, from a new assault weapons ban to a ban on cartridges that hold many bullets. That long, long list got whittled down in the Senate to little more than an expanded background checks bill, and even that fell to a Senate filibuster. And I remember standing in the White House Rose Garden when President Obama was there with Joe Biden, the vice president, who led this effort, standing next to him crying. They were parents of Newtown victims. President Obama sounded incredibly emotional.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: So while this compromise didn't contain everything I wanted, or everything that these families wanted, it did represent progress. It represented moderation and common sense. That's why 90 percent of the American people supported it. But instead of supporting this compromise, the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill.
GREENE: Well, you can hear the anger there, reacting to what he saw as the situation and the hope for getting something done on gun control. And, you know, Ari, another debate that's very difficult, another issue: immigration. And there was a time earlier this year that he sounded really bullish that he could get something done with immigration reform, and for good reason.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. He wanted to do it in his first term, and it didn't happen. But in the 2012 elections, you know, Republicans only won a quarter of the Latino vote. They did this postmortem when they said they needed to appeal more broadly to minority and other voters. And so Republicans who had previously opposed an immigration bill got on board. A comprehensive bill passed the Senate, 68 votes for it, including 14 Republicans. But then it went to the House, where House Speaker John Boehner said: We're not going to vote on the Senate bill. We're going to take our own approach to immigration. They never did, and that died as well.
President Obama insists he still has not given up hope, but there doesn't seem to be much chance for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: This is one where you've actually got some pretty broad consensus. I don't know an issue where you've got labor, the Chamber of Commerce, evangelicals, student groups - you name it - supportive of a bill.
GREENE: The sound of a man who's talking about an agenda that's been stalled. I mean, you can almost hear that disappointment. And, you know, we're talking about some domestic priorities, here. He's had a tough time on the global stage, as well, in 2013.
SHAPIRO: Yes, and he has Edward Snowden to thank for a lot of that, the contractor who used to work for that National Security Agency, who ran off to Hong Kong with a lot of America's most secret surveillance programs and started leaking them to the press, those revelations hurt him at home, but even more abroad, with allies in Brazil. In Germany, you remember Angela Merkel was furious to learn...
SHAPIRO: ...that her cell phone had been tapped. It really set back America's diplomatic efforts, and Barack Obama personally, in the efforts he had trying to build with allies overseas.
GREENE: And, you know, we can't have this conversation without mentioning Syria. That's a place where the president has been very angry about what he sees as a humanitarian tragedy, but trouble building a consensus in the world to do something about it.
SHAPIRO: Right. So, as you remember, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons on a large scale, which President Obama said crossed a red line, and he tried to mobilize an international effort for a military strike against Syria. But there was this huge surprise setback when Britain - which has this special relationship with the United States - refused to support that effort. Prime Minister David Cameron went to parliament, and he got shut down.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the government will act accordingly.
SHAPIRO: President Obama seemed undeterred. He said he was going to ask Congress for authorization for a strike on Syria. But then it was clear that he did not have the support he needed in Congress, either, so he backed away from that, as well.
GREENE: To be fair, there is what some say could be a breakthrough, and that was Assad's deal that he made with the West to get rid of his chemical weapons, which we're watching now how that will play out.
SHAPIRO: Right. And one important part of that breakthrough was that the U.S. and Russia saw eye to eye and reached this deal after man setbacks with Russia, ranging from Edward Snowden to human rights violations.
GREENE: Although perhaps a moment when Vladimir Putin sort of flexed his muscle on the world stage, and some felt that President Obama appeared somewhat weak.
SHAPIRO: We should also say President Obama had other international breakthroughs this year, besides Syria giving up its chemical weapons: Israeli-Palestinian talks restarted, Iran and its nuclear program. We'll have to see what comes of that. But there were some breakthroughs on the world stage.
GREENE: Well, let's end with Obama's biggest priority, and also, arguably, his biggest failure so far, and that's the rollout of the HealthCare.gov website that we heard so much about.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, and let's let Obama speak to that himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: Everybody is properly focused on us not doing a good job on the rollout, and that's legitimate, and I get it. There have been times where I thought we were, kind of, you know, slapped around a little bit unjustly. This one's deserved, right? It's on us.
SHAPIRO: And this is the thing, David: We've talked about all of these setbacks that were, in some cases, caused by unexpected events, in some cases caused by partisans in Congress. This is one that was President Obama's - as you said - top priority, and he had nobody to blame for the failure but himself.
GREENE: And, you know, we should say we look at a year like this, a trajectory downward. But there's really no telling at this point in a presidency what legacy will be, where presidency goes from here.
SHAPIRO: Look, at this point, the health care website is working. There is a small-scale budget deal, but all in all, it was a terrible year for President Obama. We didn't even mention the partial federal government shutdown.
GREENE: There was that.
SHAPIRO: There was that. And so, at this point, the president's approval rating is in the low 40s. It's easy to say things can only get better next year. But, hey, Congress' approval rating is way lower than that, even around 10 percent. So, look, things could get better next year, or they could get worse.
GREENE: NPR White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro. Thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.