Man, 2014 was such a whirl, wasn’t it? This was the year that a teenager from Brooklyn captivated the nation doing the dance my uncle used to do at family cookouts. It was also the year that we all freaked out about catching Ebola, when in reality more people died this year trying to take selfies than of Ebola in the US. Speaking of selfies, those were a thing in 2014 too!
And while America was
looking staring into the screen at these meaningless distractions, the political discussion was overtaken by a thick partisan fog that bubbled up over anything and everything the president decided to do. President Obama’s year was full of wins, but arguably more full of losses — and all of these will hugely impact his ability to be successful in 2015. Let’s have a rundown, shall we?
Everything was all good for Putin just a few months ago. Back in February, he launched his war against the Ukraine, took Crimea for himself and made Obama look powerless in one fell swoop. He had top conservative figures in this country just itching to take his side over Obama, and it looked as though Obama was going to be working at a loss in terms of Russian relations come 2015. But fast forward to the end of this year and it’s clear who came out on top. After the annexation of Crimea, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia. These sanctions, plus the steep drop in the price of oil, have caused the ruble to lose 50 percent of its value relative to the dollar. Meanwhile in the U.S., gas prices are at their cheapest in 5 years, the deficit is at its lowest since 2008 and unemployment is sitting at 5.8 percent. In summary, because of the leadership of Obama in dealing with Russia (and some sort of luck when it comes to oil), the U.S. now has the upper hand in whatever negotiations it has with Putin in 2015. And you’d best believe Obama’s enjoying every moment of this. From his recent NPR interview:
You’ll recall that three or four months ago, everybody in Washington was convinced that President Putin was a genius and he had outmaneuvered all of us and he had bullied and strategised his way into expanding Russian power. Today, I’d sense that at least outside of Russia, maybe some people are thinking what Putin did wasn’t so smart.”
I know we shouldn’t fall for the hackneyed cliché that midterm elections are referendums on a president’s performance. But if you paid any attention to the midterm elections it was easy to tell that Republicans framed it as just that. What makes this even more of a loss for Obama was that many of the Democratic candidates lost even after they distanced themselves from him. It also looked as though he had zero star power on the campaign trail (Michelle was a bigger draw on the campaign trail than he was). Former Democratic Kentucky Senate candidate Allison Lundgergan Grimes wouldn’t even admit whether or not she voted for Obama — perhaps the dumbest political move so far this year, and it goes to show how strained Obama’s relationship is with his Congressional counterparts. Following the Republican takeover of both the House and the Senate, Obama now has to learn to work with the GOP — something he hasn’t really started out on the right foot, what with those executive actions that sent the GOP into a frenzy. Also in 2015, Obama has to find a way to reconnect with the same voting electorate that allowed him to cruise to victory in his two presidential campaigns.
Achieving a détente with Cuba was something that seemed simultaneously long overdue and surreal. The embargo and frosty relations between the U.S. and Cuba were two of the last standing relics of the Cold War era. There’s still rampant griping from Republicans (and Democrats as well) who’d like to get Florida’s Cubans on their side, but even the staunchest of Republicans agree that this is the right move for the president to make. This feels like the change that Obama mentioned in his 2008 campaign — it’s breaking down the walls of the old guard and forging a new, more open and prosperous path towards the future. Also it’s really cool now to be able to legally own Cuban cigars, and that’s always a win. As for what this means for Obama going forward? There’s talk of opening a new embassy in Havana, and if Cuba’s ability to export to the U.S. helps their fledgling private sector, we could have another ally in the years to come. But with GOP senators already promising to block funding for embassy work and any U.S. ambassador to Cuba’s confirmation, it looks as though this issue could be a recurring, contentious issue in 2015.
Man who would have thunk it? Race issues didn’t end when Obama became president? Such a shock to the system. Did people think Obama was some sort of race wizard who could ease racial tensions with one flick of his wand? As proven with the events of the last few months, it’s going to take more than casting a vote to improve the systematic racism that is still pervasive in this country. This issue was both the biggest issue of 2014 and Obama’s biggest loss of 2014. He’s getting pounded on both sides for his response, or lack thereof, to “black lives matter” protests. On the right, they say his statements have “stoked the embers of a race war,” but also that Obama has done nothing to improve race relations in this country. On the left, many have problems with Obama’s stance on race relations. To them it feels like he is sleep walking his way through the issue, like he’s only saying enough to leave people somewhat satisfied.
The jury is still out on whether or not Obama has done anything to improve race relations in the long term, but he has without question had a negative impact in the short term — like bringing the incredibly divisive, profit-driven Al Sharpton on as a key adviser. People on both sides don’t like Al Sharpton. To bring him in as your go-to on race relations gives people pause because the move blocks new ideas and further divides the nation. On this issue and many others within the past year, like the Ebola czar and his continued appointment of former wall street executives to key White House positions, Obama has gone with what’s comfortable.
The race issue shows what has been a problem for Obama not just this year, but for his entire presidency: He has been a president constantly concerned about his legacy. Repeatedly he tries to say and do the perfect things to appease everyone, and has often been afraid to go the road less traveled. The end result is that most of what he says comes off as white noise and ends up influencing and satisfying almost no one. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the protests will continue into the New Year. Obama needs to stop toeing the line and being afraid to offend people on race issues. If he doesn’t approach the issue of race with an assertive, pragmatic tone, it will be a failure on his part not just this year, but for the remainder of his presidency.