WASHINGTON - The good news for President Obama, members of Congressand other capital policymakers as they look ahead to 2014: Next yearcan't possibly be as bad as this one has been.
Theyear that is limping to a close was defined by the disastrous rollout ofthe Affordable Care Act, the 16-day shutdown of the federal governmentand the disclosures by contractor Edward Snowden of National SecurityAgency spying that prompted presidential apologies to foreign friendsand allies. Proposals to overhaul the immigration system and tighten gunlaws went nowhere despite being supported by most Americans. Thestanding of the president and the Congress sank to record or near-recordlows.
That said, some encouraging glimmers at year's end include abipartisan budget deal (admittedly a modest one) that passed and aneconomic recovery that is gaining steam.
During the next 12months, a handful of key moments will help shape the rest of Obama'stenure in the White House, calm or roil the most turbulent regions ofthe world, and set the political landscape for the 2014 midtermelections and the 2016 presidential contest. At stake are efforts tosteady the Affordable Care Act, reach a more permanent deal to limitIran's nuclear program and draw down America's longest war.
Atstake are history's assessment of the 44th president - and, perhaps, thepublic's eroding faith in national institutions generally.
"There are a lot of things coming to a head," Democratic strategist Paul Begala says of the coming year.
Tobe sure, natural disasters, foreign crises and economic twists canoccur at any point, opening opportunities to succeed or to stumble. Butfor the president, the clock is ticking to launch final priorities,solidify lasting achievements and fix persistent problems before thepolitical world turns to the battle to succeed him in 2016. There'sstill time to get big things done: In his sixth year in office, RonaldReagan signed a major overhaul of the tax code.
"The bottom lineis, 2014 needs to be a year of action," Obama said at a downbeat newsconference before heading to Hawaii for vacation.
Here are five crucial dates that will help determine how he does in fulfilling that goal.
Obama's bully pulpit
Itwas a big speech - his electrifying address to the Democratic NationalConvention in Boston in 2004 - that launched Barack Obama as a nationalfigure. Rhetoric helped rescue him when his presidential campaignfaltered over race and a firebrand former pastor. His soaring languagebefore an enormous crowd massed in Chicago's Grant Park the night he waselected in 2008 boosted his standing across the country.
Now theState of the Union address next month will be an opportunity for Obamaonce again to use the bully pulpit to reach and persuade the nation.Speaking to what is likely to be the biggest audience he will commandall year, the president can outline his legislative agenda for the year.Will he renew his push for an immigration overhaul? Revive efforts tosimplify the tax code? Try to address growing economic inequality?
Inhis first speech to a Joint Session of Congress, in 2009, Obama focusedon efforts to stem the nation's financial crisis - "the state of oureconomy is a concern that rises above all others," he declared - and inthe addresses that followed he has pushed for education bills, toutedthe end of the Iraq war and demanded votes on gun control legislation.Last February, 33.5 million people tuned in to hear what he had to say.
"TheState of the Union address is obviously important; it gets the mostattention from the news media and from citizens," says politicalscientist Jeffrey Cohen of Fordham University. That said, there arelimits to what words can do. After five years in office during apolarized time, it's hard to find many Americans who are open topersuasion. "People really have their minds made up," Cohen says, "andthe people who don't have their minds made up are fed up."
Considerthe priorities Obama highlighted in the State of the Union a year ago.He said this year would be "our best chance for bipartisan,comprehensive tax reform." It's stalled. He wanted "to make high-qualitypreschool available to every single child in America." That hasn'thappened. He said "the time has come to pass comprehensive immigrationreform." It didn't. He proposed raising the minimum wage, saying "weshould be able to get that done." Apparently not.
Obamacare in recovery
Someof the deadlines in the Affordable Care Act have turned out beremarkably elastic. The timetable for small businesses to give employeesa choice of plans on the new marketplace was delayed for a year. So wasthe requirement that bigger businesses offer health coverage. Thedeadlines for individuals to sign up and to pay in order to startcoverage on Jan. 1 was nudged back a bit.
But March 31 remains thekey date, the deadline for Americans to have enrolled for health carecoverage or face a fine. If they don't have insurance through theiremployer or in a government program, the law says they have to havesigned up for a plan or pay a penalty when they file their tax returnsfor 2014.
On the day before the HealthCare.gov website opened onOct. 1, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was askedwhat success would look like. "Well, I think success looks like at least7 million people having signed up by the end of March 2014," she toldNBC. Then, the administration projected 3.2 million would sign up byJan. 1 and that 1.2 million would follow in each of the first threemonths of the year.
So far, enrollment levels haven't come close to those targets, although enrollment has surged in recent weeks.
TheMarch 31 enrollment levels are likely to be seen as a referendum onwhether the website and the exchanges have recovered. It also will showwhether younger, healthier adults - the ones needed to make thefinancial calculations underlying the Affordable Care Act work - signedup. The White House has been enlisting mothers to hector their kids onthe reasons to do that.
No other issue looms as more critical toObama's legacy, for good or ill. "George W. Bush is going to go down inhistory as the president of the Iraq war," Cohen says. "Obama is goingto go down in history as the president of health care."
Will Iran make a deal?
Concernabout the regime in Iran developing nuclear weapons has been one of themost serious foreign policy challenges facing Obama and his predecessor- and one complicated by the fact that Washington and Tehran haven'thad diplomatic relations since the Iranian hostage crisis erupted morethan three decades ago.
Even so, just before Thanksgiving, Iranand the West announced the first steps toward what could be a landmarkdeal. Tehran agreed to roll back or freeze parts of its nuclear programfor six months in exchange for relief from some international economicsanctions. At the end of the six months, the two sides are supposed tohave reached a more sweeping, longer-term agreement.
The six-monthtimetable is expected to be triggered shortly, after technical issuesnow being discussed in Geneva are worked out. The accord can be renewedfor another six months to continue negotiations, if needed, which wouldpush back the deadline to the end of the year.
Obama has beentrying to put out fires on Capitol Hill, threatening to veto a push totighten sanctions on Iran. He also has had to calm concerns raised byleaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia, who argue Tehran is just trying tobuy time without actually forfeiting its nuclear capability.
Forthe president, concluding the deal would "add to the theme that warswere closed off or prevented from happening" during his watch, says RayTakeyh, a former senior adviser on Iran at the State Department andauthor of The Guardians of the Revolution: Iran's Approach to the World. Takeyhsays Obama has been involved in crafting strategy on this issue. "Ifit works, it will always be an achievement for this president."
For second-term presidents, midterm elections have a history of being harsh.
In2006, George W. Bush's sixth year, the GOP lost control of the Houseand Senate. In 1986, Ronald Reagan's sixth year, Republicans lostcontrol of the Senate. While Democrats managed to pick up four Houseseats in 1998, during Bill Clinton's second term, no president in moderntimes has seen his party gain control of the House or Senate in thesixth year of his tenure.
When Republicans bore the brunt of theblame for the government shutdown last fall, some Democrats were buoyedabout their long-shot to regain control of the House, which wouldrequire scoring a gain of 17 seats. More feasible is a Republicantakeover of the Senate. The GOP needs a net gain of six, and Democratsare playing defense: 21 Democratic-held seats are up, compared with 14Republican-held seats.
Prime targets: The seven Democratic seatsin states Mitt Romney carried last year. (They are Alaska, Arkansas,Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.)
Facinga Congress under unified GOP control would complicate Obama's final twoyears in office, making it harder for him to pass legislation onimmigration or climate change, restore funding for education and winconfirmation for appointees to everything from federal agencies to theSupreme Court. Congressional committees controlled by the other side aremore likely to launch investigations and summon Cabinet secretaries toCapitol Hill for a grilling.
"I was there for a majority ofDemocrats and I was there for a majority of Republicans and I was therefor when it was 50-50," says former Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln,who lost her bid for a third term in 2010. The differences for thepresident under each scenario were stark, she says. "It's prettyimportant."
Obama watched Republicans gain control of the Houseduring his first midterm, in 2010, when the debate over health carecontributed to a Democratic loss of 63 seats, a post-World War IIrecord. Losing the Senate in his second midterm would mean he wouldleave the White House with the Democratic Party in significantly weakercondition than when he arrived.
Obama'sopposition to the invasion of Iraq helped him claim the Democraticnomination over Hillary Clinton in 2008, and voters' weariness over thewars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to his victory in the generalelection over Republican John McCain. One of those wars is over: Thelast U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq two years ago.
Force levels inAfghanistan have been steadily declining, and the U.N. mandate forcombat operations expires at the end of next year.
What happensthen isn't clear. For months, the United States has been trying toconvince Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral securityagreement setting the ground rules for a continued American presence forthe next 10 years. It would allow several thousand U.S. troops toremain to train and advise Afghan forces. Counterterrorism operations byspecial operations forces could continue.
By Dec. 31, 2014, theU.S. mission will be revamped in Afghanistan - or, if no agreement isreached, it might be ended entirely, 13 years after the war began. Thatso-called zero option once seemed an improbable threat of leverage innegotiations. but analysts no longer rule it out as impossible.
Giventhe eagerness of most Americans to see this chapter close, failing toreach a deal probably wouldn't cost Obama politically at home, says ValiNasr, a former adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obamaadministration who is now dean of the Johns Hopkins University School ofAdvanced International Studies. But the substantive impact over thelonger term could be catastrophic.
"It becomes a problem down theroad if we don't have an agreement with Karzai, we end up going to azero option with Afghanistan and the place disintegrates into civilwar," he says. "If Afghanistan unravels, the reasons that got us therein the first place may very well return, and we may very well be put inthe same position 10 years from now and have to go back in."
That debate just might be raging a year from now.