The sixth year of a two-term presidency is rarely kind.
The public's initial romance with the president has faded. The brief momentum he thought he earned by winning reelection has faded too.
For many presidents —
And if the past is any predictor, Obama's plight is likely to get worse before it gets better. The midterm congressional election has almost always taken seats from the second-term president's party, making his job even harder.
So what are the chances Obama can defy the historical pattern and turn his sixth year into a success?
The obvious portents don't look good. The president begins 2014 with his popularity near an all-time low in every poll. The healthcare mess has shaken voters' confidence in his competence and his credibility, and those problems aren't going away soon. "There are still a million pitfalls to manage," a White House aide told me last week, listing healthcare implementation at the top of the administration's to-do list. If the congressional election were held this month, Republicans might well gain the six seats they need to win a majority in the
Still, there are reasons to believe Obama's Year 6 won't be the disaster his critics predict.
First, the economy is finally recovering in earnest from the Great Recession. A spate of forecasts have predicted growth around a healthy 3% this year, with unemployment slowly declining to 6.5%.
Presidents get blamed for bad economic news — but they also get credit for good economic news, whether they deserve it or not. And if the recovery brings unemployment down, that will deprive Republicans of one of their main arguments for turning Democrats out of office.
Another potential plus for Obama is that he has finally settled on a central theme that appeals to independent voters as well as Democrats: economic fairness. "Over the course of the next year … that's where you should expect my administration to focus all our efforts," the president said last month. "The economy is stronger than it has been in a very long time; our next challenge is to make sure that everybody benefits from that, and not just a few."
In that vein, Obama plans to wage a major battle to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The minimum wage is a classic wedge issue, with Democrats and independents supporting Obama's position, but GOP voters divided..
Obama's other big domestic priority,
The administration even has reason to hope that opinion on
If their experiences are positive, that could undercut a plan by Rep.
Foreign policy could also provide a boost thanks to an event that has long been on Obama's calendar: the withdrawal of most of the remaining 47,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Expect a long series of homecoming ceremonies with flags, marching bands, tearful family reunions — and speeches by Obama reminding voters that he's fulfilled his 2008 promise to end two wars.
The administration is also trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran (difficult), peace between Israel and the Palestinians (even more difficult) and an end to the civil war in Syria (next to impossible). A win on any would be an unexpected success.
Finally, 2014 is an election year, and Obama has always been better at campaigning than governing.
The president and his allies will be trying to draw the sharpest contrasts they can — on the minimum wage, immigration, healthcare, climate change and everything else — to energize Democratic voters. So the year on
Capitol Hill is likely to be dominated by high-decibel collisions, not bipartisan harmony. If
There's no guarantee, of course, that things will play out the way Obama would like. Another standoff over the
But the president has one bittersweet asset on his side: Unlike during his heady early years in office, expectations for 2014 are low. If he can survive Year 6 with a healthy economy, healthcare intact, the Senate in Democratic hands and no new disasters, that will look like success and enable him to live and fight another day.