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The Terrible Fifth

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What is it about a president’s fifth year?

Chris Cillizza, who each week in The Washington Post picks the winners of the Worst Week in Washington, nominated President Obama, now in the fifth year of his presidency, for the worst year in Washington.

Other Washingtonians had bad years in 2013. Collectively, Congress had the worst in a series of bad years, with its poll ratings dipping into single digits (as John McCain likes to point out, polling paid staff and blood relatives gets the ratings to single digits).

Still, Obama had a terrible 2013. The year opened with great promise, with the president coming off a convincing reelection bid and following the favorable deal he cut with Republicans to avert the “fiscal cliff.”

The promise quickly disappeared.

First, the scandals: The IRS targeting the non-profit status of tea party groups; Edward Snowden and NSA surveillance; and the accusation the administration covered up who knew what about Benghazi.

Second, the president’s agenda bogged down, a victim of Republican obstructionism. Gun control legislation failed, despite the impetus given it by the horrific massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and the support of 90 percent of Americans for a modest strengthening of background checks. Immigration reform stalled in the Republican-dominated House. And a limited budget agreement reached at the end of the year failed to address the nation’s long-term debt problems.

Finally, the fiasco surrounding the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature accomplishment, squandered the political gift handed Obama by the Republican’s ill-advised 16-day shutdown of the federal government. The federal exchange’s Web site did not work at first, and Obama had to apologize publicly for his oft-repeated pledge that “if you like your insurance, you can keep it.”

Bad as Obama’s fifth year was, it pales in comparison to the truly terrible fifths of some of his predecessors. In the modern era, it started with FDR, one of the most beloved presidents, who came off a resounding landslide reelection to begin his second term in 1937 with the ill-conceived Supreme Court-packing scheme; the year ended with the nation mired in a recession caused by by the government cutting back spending just as the economy had begun to recover from the Great Depression.

Lyndon Johnson’s fifth year, coming four years after a landslide reelection, witnessed the North Vietnamese-launched Tet offensive, the highly critical reporting from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite, the near loss by a sitting president to an insurgent candidate in the New Hampshire primary, the entrance of Robert Kennedy — brother of the martyred president — into the presidential race, the decision not to run for reelection, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and RFK, urban riots, mayhem at the Chicago Democratic convention, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and widespread student demonstrations. Not all were LBJ’s fault, but all happened on his watch.

Let’s not forget Richard Nixon’s fifth year: In January, 1973, two former campaign officials were convicted in the Watergate bugging; the following month, the president failed to get CIA Director Richard Helms to cooperate in the illegal act of blocking the Watergate investigation; in April, Nixon accepted the resignations of four close aides in the burgeoning Watergate probe; over the summer, the televised Senate Watergate Committee hearings revealed widespread corruption in his administration; the White House taping was disclosed; in October, Nixon’s attempt to contain the investigation lead to the Saturday Night Massacre; and in November the president declared “I am not a crook.” 1974 would turn out worse for Nixon — he resigned — but 1973 was awful enough.

Then there is Obama’s immediate predecessor, George W. Bush: His fifth year saw continued strife in the quagmire of Iraq, the torpedoing by members of his own party of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and the inexplicably obtuse administration response to the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Katrina (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”). The Bush administration never recovered.

President Obama may not be taking much solace from these awful fifths. Still, unlike many of his predecessors, the president has time to recover from his annus horribilis.

The scandals failed to taint him: The IRS tea party-targeting never went beyond low-level IRS employees, and Benghazi fizzled out despite Republican attempts to resurrect it throughout the year, though it did undermine Obama’s original nominee to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Only the NSA spying controversy is serious, raising important issues of balancing security and freedom.

Obama can’t do much about Republican obstructionism in Congress, but he can circumvent some of it with executive orders and regulatory reforms.

Republicans will no doubt harp about the botched healthcare rollout long after the president leaves office, but 2014 is likely to witness public acceptance of Obamacare. Already, the Web site is working smoothly (at least most of the time), people are signing up, and most enrollees are getting better coverage for less. While the ACA is a Rube Goldberg law — single-payer would have been simpler and better — it is preferable to the previous chaos of American healthcare, and it will work.

Take heart, Mr. President, things can only get better.

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