ANALYSIS: Obama's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year

Thursday, December 23, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST
In this Feb. 25 file photo, President Barack Obama listens during the bipartisan health care summit of Republican and Democrat leaders at the Blair House, across from the street from the White House in Washington. Obama's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year got off to a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start.

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year got off to a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start.

There he was, on New Year's Day, on vacation with his family in Hawaii, stuck on a secure phone with counterterrorism officials, trying to figure out what screw-ups had allowed a would-be terrorist to board a Christmas Day flight with explosives in his underwear.


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Things only got worse for Obama when he returned to Washington in between a pair of epic winter storms.

From the start, 2010 delivered a string of setbacks that built up to an electoral shellacking come November, to use the president's own word.

No matter that the recession was officially over. That sweeping health care changes at last had been enacted. That combat operations in Iraq ended. That General Motors was making money and hiring again. That banks paid back most of the billions they'd borrowed from the government.

"This is what change looks like," Obama said proudly, after the health care law passed.

But. The economic recovery was too slow. The oil gushed for too long. The health care law was too complicated. The unemployment rate too high. The political discourse too raw. The tea party too loud.

Americans were in a foul mood, and Democrats got the blame.


Unemployment rate: 9.7 percent. Presidential approval rating in Associated Press-GfK poll: 56 percent. Congressional approval: 42 percent.

The Jan. 19 election to fill the Senate seat vacated by the death of Obama's ally and friend, Ted Kennedy, delivered a jarring result. Republican Scott Brown's victory, in liberal Massachusetts no less, deprived Democrats of their 60th vote in the Senate, the number needed to overcome GOP delaying tactics on legislation.

The consequences rippled through everything, recasting the already bruising health care debate, dimming hopes for climate change legislation and exposing animosity from voters over joblessness, Wall Street bailouts, exploding federal budget deficits and the toxic ways of Washington.

Obama recognized what was obvious, yet remarkable for a man who just one year earlier had embodied the restless mood of voters who swept him into office. He was losing touch.

"Do they really get us and what we're going through?" Obama wondered aloud.

He meant that extraordinary circumstances had forced themselves on the presidency and the country. "I hated it, you hated it," he said of the bank bailouts, for example. "It was about as popular as a root canal."

His State of the Union speech was in part a soliloquy about the expectations he'd raised. "I campaigned on the promise of change — change we can believe in, the slogan went," he said. "And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change. Or, at least, that I can deliver it."


Unemployment rate: 9.7 percent.

Bipartisanship came briefly into fashion, as lip service. Early in the month, Obama invited Republican leaders to the White House for the first time in two months, even as the capital was all but shut down by snow and ice. The meeting simply made clear Washington was polarized to the point of paralysis — in government as well as on the streets.

"Bipartisan cannot mean simply that Democrats give up everything that they believe in, find the handful of things that Republicans have been advocating for, and we do those things, and then we have bipartisanship," Obama sniped.

House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor told Obama in a letter: "'Bipartisanship' is not writing proposals of your own behind closed doors, then unveiling them and demanding Republican support."


Unemployment rate: 9.7 percent. Presidential approval rating: 53 percent. Congressional approval: 22 percent.

It was a month of passion and poison, a cry of "baby killer" from the House floor, roiling tea party protests, ugly shouts at lawmakers and sometimes by them. In the fierce maneuvering for a health care law, Democrats rained favors in back rooms to placate deep-pocketed special interests and wavering lawmakers. Spring arrived like streaks of mud on the carpet.

It was a mess.

And it placed Obama squarely in the history books as the president who achieved what Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Bill Clinton could not — a path to nearly universal health care. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, despised insurance company practices would be forbidden and Americans would finally get the help they need to afford health insurance as well as an IRS-enforced mandate to obtain it.

"We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things," Obama declared after the crucial House vote late the night of March 21.

Boehner steamed from the House floor in the final throes of debate. "Can you say it was done openly, with transparency and accountability, without back-room deals?" Boehner demanded. "Hell, no you can't!"

Obama summoned exhausted aides to the Truman Balcony in the midnight hour for champagne.

"Fired up! Ready to go!" Democrats exulted at the signing two days later. Vice President Joe Biden remarked to the president, a little too close to the microphone, "This is a big f------ deal."

Obama took his victory on the road. In Iowa he dared Republicans to try to repeal the law. You could say he taunted them.

"Go for it," he said. "Be my guest."

"If they want to have that fight, we can have it. Because I don't believe the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver's seat."


Unemployment rate: 9.9 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 28 percent.

At first, it was just another tragic accident. On April 20, an explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 crewmen and injuring 17 as the massive structure sank into the Gulf of Mexico.

Four days later, oil was found leaking nearly a mile below the surface.

Another circumstance had forced itself upon the presidency and the nation.


Unemployment rate: 9.7 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 28 percent.

The oil slick was massive and growing. Americans were becoming conversant with terms like blowout preventer, static kill and top kill. A live video feed from the ocean floor constantly reminded Americans that the government and the industry could not staunch a disaster unfolding before everyone's eyes.

"This man is working hard," Michelle Obama told a meeting of Democratic women early in the month.

"Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?" Malia Obama asked her father late in the month.

In Utah, the tea party movement unseated Republican Sen. Bob Bennett at a state convention, signaling to both parties that a new political force was in play. The conservative grass-roots activists scored a succession of upsets in Republican primaries from Alaska to Florida. But could those people win widely in a general election? That was the burning question for the fall.

GM, rescued by government, reported its first quarterly profit since 2007.

Overseas, just before Memorial Day weekend at home, a roadside bomb pushed the U.S. military death toll to 1,000 in Afghanistan, the war that Obama decided to fight with escalating force while withdrawing combat boots from Iraq.


Unemployment rate: 9.5 percent. Presidential approval rating: 50 percent. Congressional approval: 24 percent.

Where's the outrage? If coolness in a crisis is a virtue in the Oval Office, people also want to see leaders channel their anger and frustration.

Obama absorbed that lesson as the oil still gushed. He told Americans his talks with Gulf fishermen and oil and environmental experts were "so I know whose ass to kick."

An Associated Press-GfK poll during the crisis found that Americans had become just as dissatisfied with Obama's work on the Gulf oil spill as they had been with President George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina.

"He's certainly moved from seeming to walk on water to really slogging in the mud, the oil-filled mud if you will," Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University presidential scholar, said. "He is hitting a lot of existential obstacles — things that are out there and that are intractable."

In an extraordinary loose-lips episode, Obama's Afghanistan war commander and his aides unloaded on senior administration officials in a Rolling Stone magazine profile. Obama swiftly fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and summoned his Central Command leader, Gen. David Petraeus, to step back from that plum post and run the war effort. The episode revealed continuing frustration over what some front-line officers see as micromanaging by Washington.


Unemployment rate: 9.5 percent.

The administration called it "Recovery Summer," but people didn't seem to be buying it.

Yes, economic growth was coming back from the year before. But the $814 billion stimulus package was supposed to wrestle down unemployment, and that was still perilously close to 10 percent. Democrats who had gone to the wall for the health care overhaul were hearing voters tell them to fix the economy.

The vastly complicated health law may be as far-reaching as Social Security in the 1930s or Medicare in the 1960s. But it is different. Most people aren't suddenly getting a check from the government in the mail. The promised gains unfold in many stages spread out over years.

Joblessness is now.


Unemployment rate: 9.6 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 24 percent.

Vacations are rarely just vacations for a president and his family. This year was no exception.

Michelle Obama's five-day trip to the south of Spain with daughter Sasha touched off a mini-firestorm stoked by questions about the wisdom of such a glamorous trip and over-the-top speculation about who was footing the bill. Suddenly the popular first lady was being labeled a "material girl" sponging off taxpayers.

Later in the month, the oil spill finally choked off in advance of the final kill of the well, the Obamas symbolically vacationed in the Gulf to show the world that beaches were safe, clean and open for business again. Playing in the Florida Panhandle, the president and Sasha swam out of public view in Saint Andrew Bay off of Alligator Point, technically not the Gulf.

August produced "a good day" for Obama, the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, and a milestone in Iraq as the last combat troops came out, leaving 50,000 to try to help Iraqi forces maintain security.

"It's time to turn the page," he said.

GM, recipient of a nearly $50 billion bailout, reported another quarterly profit, $1.3 billion, and began the process of shedding government ownership. The automaker stayed profitable in the fall and raised $13 billion for taxpayers in its initial stock sale to the public. Like Chrysler, also out of bankruptcy protection, GM has been hiring thousands more workers.


Unemployment rate: 9.6 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 26 percent.

Restive voters were not waiting for November to have their say. Republican nomination races gave them their bullhorn, and they were using it with dramatic effect.

In one of the year's biggest upsets, Joe Miller, backed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, defeated GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, adding her to a column of incumbents pushed aside. Murkowski conceded a week after the Aug. 24 primary as the ballot count went against her. She later set about a long-shot campaign to win as a write-in candidate in November.


Unemployment rate: 9.6 percent. Presidential approval rating: 49 percent. Congressional approval: 23 percent.

Obama campaigned largely in urban areas in liberal states, his unpopularity such that many Democrats wanted to keep their distance from him in the home stretch. Former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden stepped in to fight for the cause in places where the president could not.

If Democrats used the health care law in their campaigns, it was to dissociate themselves from it. Some labored equally hard not to be tied to Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker demonized by Democrats' foes.

"Republicans are on offense and Democrats are running for cover," Boehner said. Democrats used every opportunity to remind voters of the bitter fruits of Republican governance. "They're offering more of the past, but on steroids," Biden said.

Democrats had little doubt they were in for a drubbing Nov. 2.


Unemployment rate: 9.8 percent. Presidential approval rating: 47 percent. Congressional approval: 26 percent.

Obama was reflective the day after. He was not looking for asses to kick. Republicans won the House from the Democrats, shaved the Democratic majority in the Senate, picked up governorships and surged in state legislatures.

"You know, this is something that I think every president needs to go through," Obama said.

"Now," he went on, "I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night. You know, I'm sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons."

Said Pelosi: "''Nine and a half percent unemployment is a very eclipsing event."

The tea party demonstrated both its potency and its limits. Republican House candidates backed by the activists are coming to Washington by the dozens. Yet some Republicans are quietly convinced they would have won the Senate, too, if not for a collection of flawed candidates chosen with tea party support.

Tea party favorites won Senate seats in Florida, Kentucky and Utah but lost in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado. In Alaska, Murkowski's improbable write-in campaign succeeded.

Obama blew off some steam at a pickup basketball game, coming away with a gashed lower lip needing 12 stitches.


The year drew to a close with the government in a defensive crouch against the drip-drip-drip of WikiLeaks disclosures. The first hundreds to be released, in a cache of more than 250,000 State Department cables coming out, proved a huge embarrassment for Washington in its dealings with other nations and followed the leak of nearly half a million documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

A burst of bipartisanship came back, this time with teeth. It has left liberal Democrats feeling bitten.

Although Obama has probably called the Republicans' bluff on their vow to repeal "Obamacare" — they don't have the votes — he has to deal with them on a broad front now. He compromised on tax cuts in the lame-duck session, agreeing to extend lower rates for the rich as well as the middle class before their expiration at year's end. The agreement is expected to add $900 billion to the deficit.

Has harmony come to the capital? Hardly. Obama likened the Republicans to hostage-takers.

But it's a new world now. He dealt.


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Gerald Shelnutt December 23, 2010 | 4:17 p.m.

Here's your change!

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Derrick Fogle December 24, 2010 | 11:38 p.m.

A lot ended up getting done in the lame duck session. The GOP may have expected to run the clock down with the tax rate extension issue. But Obama caved on that so fast, it made everyone's head spin, and left plenty of time for other stuff. The result was far from a slam-dunk for the GOP.

The tone for the new congress has been set. The party of NO has been shattered. This is going to be an interesting next 2 years.

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david smith December 26, 2010 | 3:02 p.m.

You are so right, so many great things got done in the lame duck congress by those great democrats. Those crazy republicans still said no though to that omnibus earmark-laden bill and the dream act. Thank god dont ask, dont tell got repealed as that was so important to get done. The START treaty is also important as that will give Russia and China a nuclear advantage over us and we all know how important that is to the democrats. Oh yes, the BUSH tax cuts will be extended, funny on how the Bush tax cuts "got us into this mess" but now they are essential to helping the economy. Oh those evil rich people, you know the top 1% who pay 40% of the income taxes, did not get screwed, that is terrible. Derrick you are a winner, I bet you are a union member, GO OBAMA!!!!

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 26, 2010 | 3:54 p.m.

What a crank.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 27, 2010 | 8:28 a.m.

david smith wrote:

"The START treaty is also important as that will give Russia and China a nuclear advantage over us"

Why do you think so? It simply establishes a limit of 700 missiles and 1550 warheads for both Russia and the US. That's still a lot. As for China, FAS estimates they have about 145 warheads, and only maybe 20 of those are on missiles that can reach the US.

I doubt we'll ever be able to get rid of nuclear weapons completely, nor would it be wise for the US to completely disarm. But we don't need 5,000 warheads on each side to maintain a credible deterrence.


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Gregg Bush December 27, 2010 | 10:39 a.m.

" know the top 1% who pay 40% of the income taxes..."
When one takes home the bulk of the income, one is going to pay the bulk of the tax. Another way to say it is: when the top 1% increases its wealth faster than the bottom 95%, then yes, its share of income taxes paid will also increase.
A better idea: pay the working class a living wage - then they'll pay more of the tax.
It's pretty simple.

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John Schultz December 27, 2010 | 4:16 p.m.

If someone can summarize that series on Slate into, say, three sentences on why income equality is bad and why I should give a damn, have at it. I read a couple of the articles and the author really needs a good editor with a bucket of red pens.

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Ricky Gurley December 27, 2010 | 4:46 p.m.

Let me ask a few questions here.. A fairly complex one to illustrate, so look for it in all of the "build up" to the question, please...

I don't understand much of this stuff, and that lack of understanding probably comes from a lack of care.. So, if this question is ignorant, please excuse me...

I think we all start off pretty much equal. Right?

I mean, we all have a pretty good shot at getting a good education if we are willing to work hard, right?

So, if this is the case, why should the person that kept their nose clean, worked hard, kept their nose in the books in school and in college, got a degree with good grades (in some cases honors), started at a company at the lower part of the "totem pole", worked hard and got their promotions, worked theirself up to the top, saved their money, still stayed out of trouble, and then eventually started earning good money, and later on became rich for following these principles be penalized because the majority of the population did not dedicate theirselves to these same standards and are only making an average income?

Now I understand the argument that some people were just "birthed" into money. But there are a lot of people out their that made their own fortunes. Why should they be penalized with higher taxes for being innovative or working hard to do that?

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush December 27, 2010 | 6:25 p.m.

"...why I should give a damn..."
I've heard of a cat wrangler, but never a cat herder.

"So, if this question is ignorant, please excuse me."
You're excused for believing in the fiction of meritocracy. It's a hallmark of the privileged.

"...penalized with higher taxes..."
Fines are penalties.

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Ricky Gurley December 27, 2010 | 8:08 p.m.

Gregg Bush: "Fines are penalties."

You are taxed $150.00 extra because I don't know what meritocracy means; so apparently you are better educated than I am thus you make more money than I do!

Was that tax a penalty, Gregg?

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 27, 2010 | 9:08 p.m.

John, if too few people control too much of the wealth, those people are defacto in control of the economy. If you are concerned with the government gaining control of everyone's money and using it very poorly, why would you not be concerned with any other entity (corporation, individual) doing the same thing?

This is that third sentence; does it meet your needs for an explanation as to why you should be concerned?

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush December 27, 2010 | 9:31 p.m.
(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 27, 2010 | 11:00 p.m.

Very high income inequality is a lot like a million gallon swimming pool, but it's only 6 feet across on each side, and a mile deep. Not many people can actually use it. A swimming pool that's only 6 feet deep, but a mile across on each side, can be used by a lot more people.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 28, 2010 | 9:09 a.m.

Derrick Fogle wrote:

"if too few people control too much of the wealth, those people are defacto in control of the economy."

Actually they are in control of a large amount of money, which isn't really the same thing.

Money has to be spent in order to accrue any value to the owner of that money. Whether it's one person spending millions of dollars on a home or other goods, or a few dozen spending $100,000 each, there's still a benefit to the people that built those homes or other goods. Money that people spend, whether rich or poor, goes out into the general economy and makes someone else money. I don't think it can be shown that concentrating wealth in a few hands is bad for the economy, or society, especially when most people have enough to more than enough (no French Revolution on the horizon).

Now, we've had problems with poor lending standards, overvaluing of banking derivatives, and just generally basing the economy on spending money we don't have. But that's a regulatory problem, not a fundamental problem with who has the money in the first place.

"If you are concerned with the government gaining control of everyone's money and using it very poorly,"

I'm more concerned with the government (or anyone else) using money it doesn't have, whether poorly or not.

Gregg Bush wrote:

"You're excused for believing in the fiction of meritocracy"

Who gets to decide what a particular person deserves? I think the market is as fair a way to determine this as any other.

Highly paid executives are paid well because if they weren't, someone else would pay them well. They have responsibility for enormous enterprises. People who invest massive amounts of money, in theory, assume the risks of losing some of all of it. I know this is not what happened in 2008, but IMO it should have. The troubled assets (GM, Goldman Sachs, etc.) would have been bought and restructured, and we would not be looking at the inflationary printing of money that we've seen.

I don't think you can say that a CEO should not be worth more than x times an assembly line worker (for example). Legislating compensation would open the door for all sorts of controversy and special interest that would not result in fair treatment of all concerned.


(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 28, 2010 | 10:28 a.m.

Well Ricky, apparently hard-working sons of guns like us just don't realize how lucky we are! And imagine, it required me working a part-time job, hard work in high school, and staying at home to get a college degree that I parlayed into a good career. I know you had a similar life story as well. Too bad the government can't mandate equal outcomes for all citizens.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 28, 2010 | 10:31 a.m.

Derrick, I'm not so concerned with corporations or individuals having control of the economy as I do the government since they can't lay taxes upon me or spend the country into deficit.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 29, 2010 | 11:37 p.m.

John, they most certainly can, and have, imported this country into a deficit. And the idea that they can't lay taxes on you completely discounts the concept of money-based political influence. Have you never really followed your tax money to see where it ends up? The beauty of your rationalization is only skin deep.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 29, 2010 | 11:48 p.m.

As I've pointed out before, the proof that the largest pools of money are not being spent, not going back out into the general economy, is found in the rising income inequality figures. If that money were being spent as suggested, the figures would not change as much, because the income the wealthiest capture would be sent back down into the lower income brackets through such spending. This is not happening. The money is simply pooling at the top, not being sent back down into the economy.

I think it can be shown that concentration of wealth is bad for the domestic economy. Figure A: The current state of our economy, in context of the current income equality and concentration of wealth / money. (yes, they are not the same thing, but closely intertwined)

The choppy economic performance over the last 2 decades is significantly due to the glut of capital at the top. Without adequate sound investment opportunities, that money starts going after un-sound investment opportunities, i.e. derivatives and fads. This is what causes bubbles rather than smooth economic growth.

There's also the issue of political influence. The 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act actually included significant expansions to CRA eligibility, and it wasn't until that bill pased that Freddie and Fannie were given the command to sell as much mortgage debt as possible, and package that debt into securities to be traded on Wall Street. The passage of that act coincided with the beginning of the real estate bubble.

The waters are certainly murky there, but I think there's a direct connection between a handful of people controlling massive amounts of money and wealth, and the distinct lack of sensible regulation.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 30, 2010 | 8:33 a.m.

Derrick Fogle wrote:

"The money is simply pooling at the top, not being sent back down into the economy."

If it were just money, then that would be a bad thing, because it would represent capital sequestered from the economy. But I suspect most of these guys have their money invested in various companies and instruments, and those generate economic sctivity.

When you say Warren Buffett is worth $200 billion (or whatever), it's not that he has $200 billion in cash in a safe somewhere. Just as the money we have in our saving accounts gets loaned out and generates economic activity, so do their investments.

If there's a problem, I would say it is with the ease that banks can generate money throught lax fractional reserve requirements. If the government kept tighter control over the money supply, it would be harder for credit bubbles (and they all are that in one way or another) to form. Yes, this would raise inrterest rates and put the brakes on the speed at which the economy could grow, but it would smooth out a lot of the "choppiness" you mention.

"Without adequate sound investment opportunities, that money starts going after un-sound investment opportunities"

That's another problem that is harder to address. THe world is such that it is difficult for first world manufacturing to compete with Asia, so in the presence of cheap transportation, everything winds up getting manufactured there. First world industry has stayed competitive with intellectual property, automation, and the substitution of cheap energy for human labor, but they're losing that advantage also. We will either have to adopt a protectionist import policy or accept the fact that costs of production (labor, infrastructure, and safety and environmental regs) will have to be trimmed, and we'll have to make a tradeoff between increased domestic manufacturing and decreased wages, safety and environmental protection. The tariffs are the more likely of the two, and the outcome of that will be higher prices.

Again, I don't think this is an issue of concentration of wealth being a problem in itself. It's a problem because of other factors in our economy that are very difficult to fix without a lot of economic pain.


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