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New Year is time to reflect on political ghosts of year past and look to future

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This is the time of the year to reflect on the past and look to the future.

Some are calling 2013 the worst year for Obama's presidency. It is not surprising that he seemed to look to 2014 optimistically as a "year of action," (or rather, he put it rather pleadingly saying, "2014 needs to be a year of action").

"I believe 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America," Obama, ever the optimist, said in his last press conference of the year, Dec. 20.
The year started with a fiscal cliff and ended with a government shutdown and new threats to use the debt ceiling in order to win concessions in February.

It opened with Obama still reeling from the Newtown slaying and Congress refusing to adopt gun safety legislation.

It opened with the Northeast putting itself together after the most devastating storm in decades and Congress hinting it would refuse to approve aid for Superstorm Sandy victims and ended with Congress doing its best to slash food stamps for millions of people and cutting off unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people who make up the ranks of the long-term unemployed and who, with each passing week, are more and more blacklisted from the job market. This is considered akin to damnation unto the generations, since these people have been thrown from the middle class into poverty and are unlikely to make up ground in this lifetime, which has impact on their children's futures, as well.

The year opened with President Obama at 60% approval rating - the highest of his presidency - following his Inaugural Address in which he clearly spelled out his agenda: gun violence prevention, climate change, immigration reform, jobs creation, tax reform and investment in the future.

The year ended with Congress being the least productive in history (especially when you take out laws that simply renamed post offices) - devoting most of its actions to attempting to repeal Obamacare (42 times) and ended with Congress doing its best to obstruct the implementation of the most significant social reform in 40 years.

Do you think that is why Obama's approval rating has plummeted to 42% (although this is quadruple the approval rating for Congress, so in that respect he is still flying high). Obama has not been able to get passed the agenda that the people have said they wanted. Meanwhile, the media have honed in on the memes that damage his credibility and his presidency - drones, NSA, IRS, the Obamacare roll out - that have left the populace reeling.

Yet people - including Obama - took it as a good sign that the Congress finally came together to adopt a budget - the first in 4 years.

I don't know why anyone should take this as a sign that Congress - the least productive in history - will work together to address the challenges facing this nation. If anything, the budget deal was minimalist and will likely be used by Republicans as an excuse not to make any further concessions (on food stamps, unemployment benefits, etc. etc.), just as they refused to consider any and all tax reforms after giving in to the smallest concession to allow rates on the top 1% to return to pre-Bush levels. They refused to close any loopholes that allows corporations to evade paying taxes altogether, to allow hedge fund managers to evade the taxes that 99% of us must pay, and to remove incentives to companies to offshore jobs and money or to end the outrageous subsidies (paid by taxpayers) to the Fossil Fuel industry.

If anything, Republicans are invigorated by polls like CNN"s which show Republicans leading Democrats by five points on the generic congressional ballot, 49% to 44%; 55% said they favored candidate who would oppose Obama. Just two months ago, in the wake of the government shutdown, Democrats led by eight points. The turnabout was the botched rollout of Obamacare - caused by the incompetence of private contractors. How ironic that you don't hear calls to shut down FedEx or UPS for messing up delivery of Christmas gifts, or Target for the security breach that led to 40 million credit and debit cards being hacked.

But what this means is that Republicans see a winning strategy in continuing the attack on Obamacare (using blatant lies like the website can compromise personal health information when none is asked since pre-existing conditions are no longer relevant to obtaining health insurance).

It also reflects the frustration of progressives over drones, the NSA scandal and the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade (TPP) agreement (though the terms are secret, progressives are furious over rumors that it gives foreign corporations veto power over local environmental protections, and they can sue for damages).

And all of this was used to deflect from the significant accomplishments during the year. It is important to review them, in order to give a context and yes, credibility to Obama's administration.

As this is still the season we briefly think about "peace on earth, good will to man," it is appropriate to start with the foreign policy accomplishments that are being widely ignored:

As Obama, himself put it: "This year, we’ve demonstrated that with clear-eyed, principled diplomacy, we can pursue new paths to a world that’s more secure -- a future where Iran does not build a nuclear weapon; a future where Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are destroyed. By the end of next year, the war in Afghanistan will be over, just as we’ve ended our war in Iraq, and we’ll continue to bring our troops home. And, as always, we will remain vigilant to protect our homeland and our personnel overseas from terrorist attacks."

And has anyone noticed that the economy is actually rebounding (no thanks to Republicans between the sequester, debt ceiling brinksmanship and government shutdown)?

Has anyone noticed that December closed with the 50th record close on Wall Street - now closing in on 16,500? Does Obama get any credit?

Businesses have added 8.1 million jobs over the past 45 months, and are on track to register the third consecutive year of job growth in excess of two million.

The unemployment rate, at 7%, lowest in 5 years.

The growth rate of gross domestic product has risen for four straight quarters, and the private components of GDP have grown at a robust 3.7 percent annualized rate over the last two quarters.

Home foreclosures are down to lowest rate in 5 years; and the housing sector is bouncing back

Home prices - the source of most middle class' Americans wealth - were up 13% by September - Then the government shut down came, reminding the vast majority of their insecure place in the economic firmament.

The United States has seen most rapid deficit reduction since the demobilization from World War II. The deficit has fallen by 5.7 percentage points of GDP over the last four years, with nearly half of that—2.7 percentage points—taking place just this year alone.

And yet, 70% of Americans don't look back on 2013 as a year in which their economic situation improved. This is partly because the benefits of the economic expansion since the Great Recession have flowed up, but not down; 50% of Americans are not invested in the stock market, so don't get to share in that plenty. Wages for the people who actually work for a living have remained largely stagnant; job growth has mainly been concentrated in low-paying jobs, and as Paul Krugman wrote this week, employers have little incentive to raise wages and workers are powerless to make them.

Obama has constantly called for policies designed to create jobs - his program to incentivize employers to hire veterans and military spouses; seeking investments for infrastructure, research and education, partnerships between private companies and community colleges, and a major program (no one has heard about) to incentivize foreign companies to bring jobs and investment from around the world to the U.S. through aggressive expansion and enhancement of SelectUSA and other programs that have helped spark a renaissance in US manufacturing.

What hasn't been calculated yet is the improved buying power for Americans - another unheralded success for Obama (and why the percentage of people still complaining about the economy reflects more the media than reality) - because of such things as America producing more of its own energy than it imports for the first time; the slowest growth in health care costs (1.3%) in 50 years, compared to the double-digit annual increases; and even the pressure on college tuitions and affordability.

"And you add that all up," President Obama said in his press conference, "and I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America."

Obama has set his own theme for 2014, signaled in remarks earlier in the month: the unacceptable level of economic inequality. Reforming the tax code and ending corporate welfare, investing in jobs (infrastructure, research and development), raising the minimum age, investing in universal pre-K and college affordability, immigration reform on top of access to health care which is just being implemented, would be ways to restore economic justice. Extending unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed and food stamps to the neediest and most vulnerable (both which have mechanisms to cut off if the economy improves), are also key.

But will that happen in 2014?

Obama - presenting himself as the eternal optimist - took it as a sign that for the first time in four years, the parties came together to pass a budget.

"That unwinds some of the damaging sequester cuts that created headwinds for our economy. It clears the path for businesses and for investments that we need to strengthen our middle class, like education and scientific research. And it means that the American people won’t be exposed to the threat of another reckless shutdown every few months. So that's a good thing.

"It’s probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship," he said. "But it’s also fair to say that we’re not condemned to endless gridlock. There are areas where we can work together."

The first test of what 2014 will look like - whether there will be progress or obstruction - will be over whether Republicans agree to extending unemployment benefits to the long term unemployed - which is not just the humane thing to do, but helps bolster local economies because 100 percent of the money is spent.

My prediction is that Republicans will insist on extracting some intolerable amount of flesh before they will accept it.

But Obama, ever the optimist, said, "I think we’re a better country than that. We don’t abandon each other when times are tough. Keep in mind unemployment insurance only goes to folks who are actively looking for work -- a mom who needs help feeding her kids when she sends out her resumes, or a dad who needs help paying the rent while working part-time and still earning the skills he needs for that new job." Also, the long-term benefits are phased out in areas where the unemployment rate falls below 9% and again when it falls below 7%.

Obama continued, "So when Congress comes back to work, their first order of business should be making this right. I know a bipartisan group is working on a three-month extension of this insurance. They should pass it, and I’ll sign it right away."

I would say this would be the test of what the rest of 2014 will look like - how the debt ceiling will unfold, whether Republicans will vote to raise the minimum wage (not likely), whether there will be any discussion of comprehensive immigration reform, tax reform, or jobs-creation programs.

Obama said, "Let me repeat: I think 2014 needs to be a year of action. We’ve got work to do to create more good jobs, to help more Americans earn the skills and education they need to do those jobs and to make sure that those jobs offer the wages and benefits that let families build a little bit of financial security. We still have the task of finishing the fix on our broken immigration system. We’ve got to build on the progress we’ve painstakingly made over these last five years with respect to our economy and offer the middle class and all those who are looking to join the middle class a better opportunity, and that's going to be where I focus all of my efforts in the year ahead."

Ever the optimist, Obama said, "And when I look at the landscape for next year, what I say to myself is, we're poised to do really good things. The economy is stronger than it has been in a very long time. Our next challenge then is to make sure that everybody benefits from that, not just a few folks. And there are still too many people who haven't seen a raise and are still feeling financially insecure.

"We can get immigration reform done. We've got a concept that has bipartisan support. Let's see if we can break through the politics on this."

A reporter pointed out that Congressman Paul Ryan "has said that 'Republicans are going to decide what it is they can accomplish on this debt limit fight' -- his words. Will you negotiate with House Republicans on the debt ceiling?"

Obama restated his position that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling (hostage taking can work both ways, you know).

"I think that, hopefully, folks have learned their lesson in terms of brinksmanship, coming out of the government shutdown. There have been times where I thought about, were there other ways that I could have prevented those three, four weeks that hampered the economy and hurt individual families who were not getting a paycheck during that time -- absolutely. But I also think that, in some ways, given the pattern that we had been going through with House Republicans for a while, we might have needed just a little bit of a bracing sort of recognition that this is not what the American people think is acceptable. They want us to try to solve problems and be practical, even if we can’t get everything done.

"So the end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see what can you do better next year. That’s how I intend to approach it. I’m sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun."

I think Obama was posturing, even daring the Republicans. People say he is a talented politician - how else can you become president after only two years in the Senate? And I think he has realized he has been most successful when he does what he can administratively.

But it is frustrating that he seems not to get the credit.

Progressives - especially- seem to expect him to be Superman and come down hard on him when he is not successful.

Obama isn't Superman.

But even Superman was shunned by the fickle people of Metropolis.

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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