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A Year of Frustration: 2013

On January 20, Obama was sworn in for his second term as President of the United States. In his inaugural address he said:

... we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

The killing of 20 children and 7 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut back in December was still on many minds. On 24 January, Senator Dianne Feinstein and 24 co-sponsors introduced legislation to ban assault weapons. Bi-partisan legislation was introduced in the Senate to require background checks on most private party firearm sales, and there was talk of limiting ammunition-magazine sizes.

Obama had said that he would "use whatever power this office holds" to prevent similar tragedies. He was invited to speak by Minneapolis Police Department, and there he spoke of the police being at the front of the fight against gun violence and outlined his gun control campaign. He won applause saying, "We don't have to agree on everything to agree it's time to do something." He said that "we're starting to see a consensus emerge about the action Congress needs to take.'

State of the Union

On 12 February, Obama addressed a joint session of Congress and laid out an agenda on climate change, income inequality, immigration, gay rights, the economy, and war. He said:

After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home. After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over six million new jobs. We buy more American cars than we have in five years, and less foreign oil than we have in twenty. Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding, and consumers, patients, and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before. Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis.

On the deficit he said:

Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion ... As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances. Now we need to finish the job. And the question is, how?

Obama denounced spending cuts that would jeopardize "our military readiness." He spoke against bigger cuts "to things like education and job training; Medicare and Social Security benefits." He spoke for a tax code "that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms" and that "lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America."

He spoke up for an upgraded infrastructure and said that for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change." He said that if Congress didn't act "to protect future generations," he would. "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

The Senate blocks Gun Control Legislation

In mid-April in the US Senate voted on gun control issues raised with the Newtown, Sandy Hook massacre the previous December. Polls indicated a majority of Americans favored more regulation regarding guns. But efforts to expand background checks for gun buyers failed, and so too did a ban on assault weapons and a ban on high-capacity gun magazines. Kids from Sandy Hook Elementary School were in the gallery. So too was the grandmother Patricia Maisch, who had to be escorted from the building. She was the woman who in 2011 had prevented Jared Lee Loughner from reloading after he had shot congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She called the Senate an "embarrassment to this country.

President Obama was also visibly angry. Speaking at the White House Rose Garden he called it "a pretty shameful day for Washington." He was alongside families victimized by Sandy Hook massacre and Gabrielle Giffords.

Sixty votes were required for passage of each issue. Republicans and a few Democrats didn't provide the few additional yes votes needed. John McCain and Susan Collins were two Republicans who voted yes. Democrats who voted no were Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, all of them from states that Obama lost by wide margins in 2012 and fearing difficult re-elections. The Washington Post describes Obama as lashing out at the National Rifle Association for having "willfully lied" about the background-check proposal "to stoke fear among gun rights supporters that Congress would violate their Second Amendment rights or create a federal gun registry." He spoke of those voting no having "cave into the pressure." And he warned those who voted no of the political consequences from public opinion and the 2014 midterm elections.

Opponents of the Senate's gun legislation used a boogeyman-association tactic. The boogeyman was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was trying to limit the size of soft drinks. The NRA ran ads on news websites urging voters to oppose "Bloomberg and Obama."

Some people watching all this believed that the gun legislation would never succeed anyway, that it would not have passed through the Republican-dominated House of Representatives even if had made it through the Senate.

Obama, meanwhile, according to Gallup polls was holding around a 49 percent approval rating, down from 52 percent in January. The public, it seems, was displeased with both Democrats and Republicans and not terribly pleased by Obama.

Immigration Reform

In his State of the Union address, Obama said that real immigration reform "means strong border security" and that his administration had already put "more boots on the Southern border than at any time in our history... reducing illegal crossing to their lowest levels in 40 years." He described real reform as including a responsible pathway to earned citizenship: passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

In mid-April, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and a bipartisan group of eight introduced an immigration reform bill in the Senate. This was the day after the terror bombing at the Boston Marathon the day before — the work it would soon be learned of two from a family that had migrated from Chechnya.

Obama responded to the bombing with a passionate speech in Boston about the beauties of the Boston Marathon and the welcome for the new arrivals to our shores, "immigrants who constantly reinvigorated this city and this commonwealth and our nation." He spoke up for prayer and God, and his approval rating rose up from 47 percent to 51 percent.

The Senate Judiciary Committee had hearings on the immigration bill, and in May it was put on the Senate's calendar. On June 27 the Senate passed the bill 68 votes to 32. It was designed to give a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the US, and it included an expanded computerized verification system for employers (a system questioned by the American Civil Liberties Union and by members of the Heritage Foundation, while others supported the job-denying system as a migration disincentive).

In the Senate, fourteen Republicans joined the Democrats in passing the bill. But Republicans dominated the House of Representatives and most of them didn't like the bill. The House killed the bill by not taking it up for consideration.

Foreign Affairs

Since the first of February, Obama had a new Secretary of State, John Kerry. On March 1, to help what Kerry called Syria's liberated areas the US pledged $60 million in assistance to Syria for everything other than weaponry. On March 3 the dictator Assad said his regime was ready to negotiate "with anyone, including militants who surrender their weapons" (equivalent to asking the militants to surrender). Assad said again that he was not going to step down. His regime was being supplied weapons by Russia and Iran. Britain and France considered that military pressure would make Syria's dictatorship willing to effectively negotiate, and these two members of the European Union were pushing on the EU to allow them to send weapons to Syrians they believed were fighting for democracy.

Later in March, Obama visited Jordan and Isreal. He embraced Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu. He spoke a few words of Hebrew and pledged an "eternal" alliance. He told a student audience that "The occupation will not end and peace will never be achieved by only declaring statements," that peace would be "made among peoples, not just governments." (Applause.) "The Palestinian people's right to self-determination, their right to justice," he added, "must also be recognized." This won more applause and praise from Israel's left-leaning president, Shimon Peres. (Reactions to the speech by students in Israel is here.)

For the Obama administration, North Korea was also a concern. The US had vowed to protect South Korea, and the north's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, was describing the joint military exercises by the US and South Korea as "reckless" and a provocation. The Supreme Leader signed an order that prepared his country's missiles for action. And, on April 4, North Korea shut down the industrial cooperation facility just inside its border with South Korea – its last link with the South. On April 14, North Korea dismissed a proposal for dialogue by South Korea as a "cunning ploy," and it rejected Secretary of State Kerry's invitation to talks.

Regarding Syria and the use of chemical weapons, Obama back in 2012 had declared a "red line" that Assad was not to cross. In 2013, according to Human Rights Watch, the Assad regime "repeatedly carried out indiscriminate, and in some cases deliberate, air strikes against civilians. In August, Assad's military attacked rebel-controlled Damascus suburbs with chemical weapons, killing nearly 1,500 civilians, including more than 400 children. Many expected Obama to respond with military action. But it didn't happen. Obama believed that hitting Assad's airpower would accomplish nothing. (According to Pew Research, 49 percent of those surveyed opposed retaliatory air strikes and 29 percent favored the military action. Republicans and Democrats were divided on the issue.) By September, Obama thought he had won an agreement with the Assad regime regarding an end to the use of chemical weapons by Assad's agreeing to destroying his chemical weapons stockpile (while still being able to crush Syrians with conventional weapons). It was to prove a fiction, and some were to associate Obama's unwillingness to backup his red-line declaration (at the expense of his own credibility) with Russia's continuing aggressive actions in the Ukraine and with China's moves in the South China Sea.

US Government Shutdown

In 1917 the US Congress invented a "Debt Ceiling" to limit the amount of money the federal government could borrow and to encourage discipline in financing the war it had entered to save the world for democracy. By September 2013 the debt ceiling matter was an issue between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. They didn't agree about a legislation that would raise the debt ceiling. Tea Party Republicans wanted Obamacare defunded, and this was put into the House bill for funding the government. In the Senate, Harry Reid (Democrat and majority leader) saw the House funding bill as offensive and refused to let the Senate take it up for consideration. Without funding, the federal government was poised to shut down. Republicans blamed the approaching shut-down on control of the Senate by Democrats "playing politics."

A partial government shutdown began on October 1. Many federal employees were forced to stop working. Financial benefits for veterans were disrupted. Production was disrupted for companies doing business with the federal government. People in the military were to have their pay delayed. The national parks and safety inspectors for food were impacted. So too the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NASA would have to furlough almost all of its employees. Members of Congress would get paid, but their staffers would not.

In crisis mode, on October 16 the Senate and the House got together on a bill that raised the debt ceiling. Tea Party and anti-Obamacare hardliners were outvoted. Democrats supported the bill unanimously, 198-0 with two Democrats not voting. The Republican voted for the bill 87 to 144 opposed. (Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was a big supporter of defunding Obamacare and opposed the bill.) Obama signed the bill shortly after midnight on October 17 ending the shutdown, and for those he held responsible for the shut-down he said,

You don't like a particular policy or a particular president? Then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election."

End of the Year

By the end of 2013 the US economy was limping along, having grown only 1.7 percent for the year and the unemployment rate having declined only to 7 percent. The enthusiasm for Obama that some had felt in late 2008 and early 2009 had diminished. There was a lack of enthusiasm for Obamacare, which was having online signup problems. Healthcare in the US was still twice that of other countries.

Those with hawkish inclinations didn't see in Obama a champion putting the world right, and at least a few noticed that the bankers who had been ravaging the economy a few years earlier were out of jail and receiving bonuses. Obama's approval rating had declined to 40 percent. Some, according NBC's Chuck Todd in his Obama book (The Stranger) were now seeing Obama as "just another politician."

CONTINUE READING: 2014 and the Midterms

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