Facebook hasn’t quite killed the Christmas letter yet, although the Christmas card industry is dying. Fewer Christmas cards arrive each year. A single post in Facebook, with a cute graphic, covers most everyone, even those random imaginary friends – those from the past you only vaguely remember but who say they remember you. It’s very efficient, but it’s not personal, and it’s certainly sparse. That’s why a few Christmas cards still arrive, the ones with the long what-happened-this-year narrative about how wonderful the year has been, unless it wasn’t. Cousin Bruce graduated from law school. Cousin Clara opened a candle shop in Butte, after her release from prison. Someone else had a fine time in the hospital and is all better now. The trip to Equator was amazing, or maybe it was Bulgaria.
This is the sort of thing most folks skim and discard. Someone else is trying to wrap their head around what the hell happened this year, and that’s their struggle, not yours. They’re writing to themselves. Sometimes it is interesting to tag along as they try to make sense of things, to work out whether the year was a net-positive or a net-negative, but usually it’s rather tedious – and a bit embarrassing too. Why are they telling you this stuff? Are they seeking approval, or forgiveness, or are they agreeing with Camus about the absurd, or are they contemplating the mysterious ways of God, which no one will ever understand but which everyone should accept?
Maybe it’s just December, as the days grow short and the year ends. Winter evenings are a time for contemplation. There’s not much else to do.
It’s the same in public life too. As the year ends, the media begins to run endless items on what to make of the major events of the year, and whose year was a net-positive or a net-negative. Bill Cosby had a bad year. Chris Christie had a bad year, and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza says President Obama had the worst year of all:
In 2014, President Obama’s past caught up with him. His sixth year in office was, inarguably, his worst, when the problems that had been building throughout his second term all came crashing down around him.
The year began with Obama proposing a set of reforms to the National Security Agency, a result of ongoing national security leaks, and ended with midterm elections that saw his party lose its Senate majority largely because of the president’s unpopularity.
In between were continued challenges to the Affordable Care Act, America’s reentry into Iraq – a war the president had long vowed to exit – and memoirs from former Cabinet officials questioning Obama’s decision-making and judgment.
It’s simply over for this guy:
Now, all that appears left for the Obama presidency is a narrowing of both vision and accomplishment. What tied together all of 2014’s failures, stumbles and necessary evils was a growing sense among the public that Obama simply isn’t up to the job to which he has been twice elected.
Consider this: In CNN-Opinion Research Corp. polling in December 2008, more than three-quarters of Americans said that the phrase “can manage the government effectively” applied to Obama; by March 2014, just 43 percent said the same. (And that was before problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs were revealed later that month.) A late 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll found a similar result, with just 41 percent of respondents saying Obama “is a good manager.” A Pew Research Center survey in July showed that 44 percent of respondents believed that Obama was “able to get things done,” a number not far from the 42 percent of people who said the same of George W. Bush at a similar point in his presidency.
They’re just alike now:
Every early move Obama made – from his campaign promise of “change” to the “team of rivals” idea for his Cabinet – was driven by the notion that this president, unlike the man he replaced, was all about turning the government into a pure meritocracy that would run things right.
But that idea began to unravel with a rapid-fire series of scandals: the revelation that the IRS was targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny, the Edward Snowden leaks about NSA surveillance and the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov, to name three that happened in 2013.
That unraveling sped up over the past 12 months – fueled, interestingly enough, by foreign policy stumbles by the president and his team.
Obama’s longtime pledge to “reset” relations with Russia was exposed as frighteningly naive when President Vladimir Putin moved into eastern Ukraine with impunity. Obama’s response to Putin’s aggression – sanctions – was derided as using a spray bottle to put out a five-alarm fire.
Then there was Iraq, the “dumb war” that Obama was elected in no small measure to end. He seemed to do that once, removing the last combat troops from the country in 2011. But then came the rise of the Islamic State, the militant group that now controls much of Iraq and Syria, made particularly infamous by its heinous tactic of beheading captives.
And so on and so forth. Cillizza’s Christmas letter is long and detailed, as most are, and it ends with this:
President Obama, for becoming a victim of history rather than a writer of it, you had the worst year in Washington. Congrats, or something.
The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, however, just doesn’t see it that way:
Remember when pundits loved Barack Obama? It’s been quite a few years now. But I suspect some of the adoration is about to come back.
He’s serious, and he cites three reasons:
The first is that politically, Obama’s immigration gamble is working. Fearful of alienating Hispanics or shutting down the government, Republican leaders have largely abandoned hope of overturning Obama’s move. What’s more, Obama’s approval ratings are up 15 points among Hispanics but have not dropped among Anglo whites. Add immigration to health-care reform and the fiscal stimulus and more commentators will start noticing that, whether you like Obama’s agenda or not, it’s been the most consequential of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson.
Then there’s the economy:
The third quarter saw the fastest job growth in three years, and the unemployment rate is now 5.8 percent, down from 10 percent in 2009. Gas prices are also plunging. And there’s evidence Americans are beginning to notice… consumer confidence has just hit its highest mark in eight years. Even if the improving economy doesn’t boost Obama’s approval rating, it’s likely to improve the way he’s seen by the Beltway press. And given the role a strong economy played in buoying Bill Clinton’s approval ratings in the late 1990s, despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it’s quite possible that Obama’s will rise too, which will further fuel the journalistic perception that Obama is back.
Journalistic perception, then, is the third reason:
This year’s dominant storyline was about Obama and the midterm elections. Most key Senate races took place in red and purple states where Democratic candidates distanced themselves from Obama, thus magnifying the media’s perception that he was a political pariah.
Next year, however, the story won’t be 2014 but 2016. And the Democratic story, in all likelihood, will be Hillary Clinton’s march toward her party’s nomination. While Obama was certainly unpopular this fall in states like Kentucky, he remains quite popular among the liberal activists who play an outsized role in Democratic primaries. In fact, Obama retains a connection to many them that Hillary Clinton has never enjoyed. The closer she comes to the nomination, the more nostalgic some of those grassroots liberals will become about Obama.
Context is everything:
Just last week, in a slap at Clinton, 300 former Obama campaign staffers signed a letter urging Elizabeth Warren to run. In the year to come, there will be many more reminders that in 2008 Obama generated a passion among liberals that Hillary Clinton did not, and may still not. That storyline will make Obama look good.
That’s why Beinart ends his net-positive or net-negative assessment with this:
Every presidency has its media cycles. Journalists like to build up, tear down and then build up again. This year, Obama’s media coverage has been horrendous. According to The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, Obama had the worst year of any major figure in Washington. But it’s precisely because so many journalists share Cillizza’s views that our easily bored tribe will now try to push the pendulum back – which won’t be very hard at all.
These two fellows disagree, but Obama can write his own year-end Christmas letter. Presidents do that, except they do that in the traditional year-end press conference, before they head off for Christmas vacation. George Bush headed off for his ranch in Texas each year. Obama heads off to Hawaii, where he was born – not Kenya or Krypton, and yes, Hawaii really is part of the United States. And this year Obama did offer his net-positive or net-negative assessment of the year, and saw a net-positive, and let it rip:
President Obama on Friday chastised Sony Pictures for shelving a satirical movie following a North Korean cyberattack and vowed that the United States would take retaliatory action against the hermit nation. “I think they made a mistake,” the president said of Sony’s decision to stop distribution of the movie. “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”
That was the issue of the day, but the whole year was the bigger issue:
He called 2014 “a breakthrough year for America,” citing the recent pickup in job growth, new enrollees in health-care exchanges, climate agreements with China and this week’s opening to Cuba.
“As a country, we have every right to be proud of what we’ve accomplished: more jobs, more people insured, a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, booming energy,” Obama declared. “Take any metric that you want, America’s resurgence is real. We are better off.”
There was this too:
On Afghanistan, which is now the longest war in American history, Obama quickly noted that American combat operations would cease in two weeks and more American troops would be home for the holidays than at any other time in the last decade.
“Yes, there were crises that we had to tackle around the world, many that were unanticipated,” Obama said, citing the U.S. role in leading coalitions to check Russian aggression in Ukraine, halt the advance of Islamic State militants in the Middle East and fight Ebola in Africa.
“We have every right to be proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said.
And there was this:
The president celebrated his breakthrough deal with Cuba, which normalized relations with Havana for the first time since the Eisenhower administration and predicted that change would slowly come to a nation that has been stuck in place for more than 50 years.
Obama played down the possibility of a meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro during the remaining years of his presidency, saying that such a visit wasn’t “in the cards.” But he was confident that the island, which he called a “hermetically sealed society,” would open in “fits and starts.”
“I’m a fairly young man, so I imagine that at some point in my life, I will have the opportunity to visit Cuba and enjoy interacting with the Cuban people,” Obama said.
And he said he’d be glad to work with Congress, the new Republican Congress, if they wanted to get a few things done for a change – otherwise he would do what he could do with executive actions, while he was waiting for them to get their act together. And there was the race issue:
As the nation’s first black president, Obama has often faced critics on both the right and left who cite high unemployment and poverty rates among black Americans. While noting that racial gaps still exist in employment and education, Obama insisted that the experience of being black in America has improved since his historic election in 2008.
“Like the rest of America, black America in the aggregate is better off now than it was when I came into office,” Obama said. “The jobs that have been created, the people who’ve gotten health insurance, the housing equity that’s been recovered, the 401 pensions that have been recovered – a lot of those folks are African Americans. They’re better off than they were.”
But the president also acknowledged the awakened racial tensions that have spurred protests in several American cities, noting that there is “a growing awareness in the broader population” of the perception of race-based inequalities in the justice system.
But even there, there’s hope:
“I actually think it’s been a healthy conversation that we’ve had. These are not new phenomena. The fact that they’re now surfacing, in part because people are able to film what have just been, in the past, stories passed on around the kitchen table, allows people to, you know, make their own assessments and evaluations,” Obama said. “And you’re not going to solve the problem if it’s not being talked about.”
So, let’s talk. This year-end letter was rather positive, and Slate’s John Dickerson emphasizes how unusual it was:
In November, President Obama’s party took a pounding at the polls. In the press conference the day after, Obama avoided offering a word or descriptive phrase to encapsulate the catastrophe. (It’s something he and past presidents have often done in the wake of a drubbing.) He then sort of refused to take the loss, reminding the world that he too had a constituency: the voters who elected him and re-elected him, a larger group than had just handed Republicans control of the Senate.
In the 40 days between that press conference and the one he gave Friday, the president has worked that same seam – unburdened and loose from having no more elections to face. First, he announced his support for strong net neutrality, then he announced a climate deal with China – secret and long in the making – that helped jump-start progress in global talks, then he issued the executive order protecting as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants. After that came an EPA ruling on ozone emissions, a budget deal to keep the government open, and the historic deal opening diplomatic relations with Cuba.
This press conference was an exclamation point on this dash in his presidency. Obama clearly seemed pleased with the way things have been going. He said he still remained open to working with Republicans, and he said nothing ill of them. His goal next year, he said, was to separate those things that he and Republicans agree on (tax reform, infrastructure improvements, and trade) from those things they will fight passionately over (everything else).
The guy simply refuses to be a lame duck, and he now gets feisty:
Obama did have a little chin music for network television executives whose representatives he didn’t call on during the 45-minute event. He only called on female correspondents, in another sign that in ways big and small he’s going to do things his way. …
In fact, Obama had a lot to say about who we are. Asked about race relations in America, he expanded his remarks to talk about the general resilience and goodness of the American people. It was his own long-standing paean to American Exceptionalism, though his critics say he is only capable of running down the country.
“The vast majority of people are just trying to do the right thing. People are basically good and have good intentions,” he said. He said his general theme for the end of the year was, “We’ve gone through difficult times. … But through persistent effort and faith in the American people, things get better. The economy has gotten better. Our ability to generate clean energy has gotten better. We know more about how to educate our kids. We solve problems. Ebola is a real crisis. You get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that’s been seen before. We fix it. … And it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed. And, you know, part of what I hope, as we reflect on the New Year, this should generate is some confidence. America knows how to solve problems. And when we work together, we can’t be stopped.”
You wanna argue with that? Make my day. This was defiance. No one expected that. That’s what Vladimir Putin specializes in, but Paul Krugman suggests Putin can’t pull that off:
If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.
But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis – a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.
For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.
The rest is a detailed discussion of market forces, mainly the collapse of oil prices, and the bizarre structure of the Russian economy – Krugman is an economist after all – but the point is that swagger and defiance are pathetic when things are falling apart. Putin hasn’t figured that out, and neither have our swaggering Republicans, but like Obama, Putin had his year-end press conference, which was appropriately pathetic, all three hours of it.
Katie Zavadski watched that press conference so you don’t have to:
Putin denied accusations that he is inciting a major international conflict in Ukraine, accusing the West – particularly the U.S. – of being in a pot-calling-the-kettle-black situation. “Our budget is $50 billion – the Pentagon budget is 10 times higher. Does anyone listen to us at all? Does anyone have a dialogue with us? No,” he said. “All we hear is ‘mind your own business.’ In the Ukrainian crisis I believe we are right and our Western partners are wrong.” …
But weighing most heavily on the minds of everyone in attendance was the ruble’s recent downward spiral. At the Wednesday low, one U.S. dollar was buying 79 rubles, though the free-fall appears to have stabilized. For some, Tuesday’s value drop called to mind a similar incident 20 years ago, now known as Black Tuesday. He attributed a significant portion of these ongoing economic woes to Western sanctions, introduced in part because of his annexation of Crimea. But the president also told Russians not to worry, assuring them that the economy would rebound. (Indeed, the ruble was up to 61 to a dollar during his address.) “Our economy will overcome the current situation. How much time will be needed for that? Under the most unfavorable circumstances I think it will take about two years,” he said.
This was defiant whining, and Neal Cassidy notes this:
Insofar as Russia’s fate depends on what happens to the oil price, Putin’s guess that things will pick up by the end of 2016 is as legitimate as anybody else’s. While he was speaking, the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, was also saying, in Riyadh, that the current collapse would prove to be temporary. But Putin’s claim that, by the end of 2016, Russia will have successfully diversified its economy beyond energy is hopeful, to say the least. Indeed, a bit later in his press conference, when a reporter from Pravda asked about the country’s “oil addiction,” he acknowledged as much. “We are trying to create more favorable conditions for the development of production, but it is moving forward with difficulty,” Putin said.
He’s got nothing, as he has no options:
A prominent political observer and professor of National Research University Higher School of Economics, Vladimir Ryzhkov, summarized Putin’s statements for The Daily Beast: no plans for new reforms, no radical changes of staff or re-appointments. Not a word mentioned about the crazy growth of prices and public poverty. Why did Putin not give Russians any comforting promises? “Because he is waiting for oil to become expensive again, and everything to go back to normal soon. He does not have a clear understanding of how deep the crisis is – that’s why he is afraid to make any abrupt moves,” Ryzhkov said. Meanwhile, Russia is sinking ever deeper into its economic morass.
There’s not much that can be done about that, and in spite of what Chris Cillizza says, Obama had a good year. Putin didn’t. But as the days grow short and the year ends, when winter evenings are a time for contemplation, and a time for looking back and assessing whether the year was net-positive or net-negative, you have to work with what you’ve got. Swaggering isn’t wise. In fact, it’s embarrassing. That’s why most of us never read those Christmas letters. That’s just people talking to themselves.