Monday, December 30, 2013

Annus Horibilis

1992 marked the 40th anniversary of Elizabeth II's ascension to the British throne.  She had already served almost three times as long as her farther, well on her way to being, thus far, the second longest serving monarch in British history.  She should have looked back on '92 with both joy and satisfaction.  She did not.  For Elizabeth, 1992 was an Annus Horibilis, a horrific year.  Her daughter Anne divorced.  Her younger son Andrew was separating from "Fergie", his fun loving wife.  A tell-all book was published detailing the affairs of Princess Dianna, the estranged wife of Crown Prince Charles.  If that were not enough, a destructive fire broke out at her beloved Windsor Castle.

2013 inaugurated Barack Obama's second term.  After a decisive win in November, the president might have expected a strong start.  Of course — and this isn't news — he experienced just the opposite.  A combination of relentless and often vicious mean-spirited rightist opposition coupled with a number of his own missteps resulted in his Annus Horibilis.  As the year comes to the close, his poll numbers are the lowest of his presidency.  Most troubling is that the confidence Americans have had in him has badly eroded.  A December Pew/USA poll showed that only 45% of Americans approve of his job performance.  Even worse, according to Pew: "The percentage viewing Obama as 'not trustworthy' has risen 15 points since January – from 30% to 45%.

That lack of trust can in part be attributed to Obama's erroneous claims that insured Americans could hold onto the policies they liked.  It is truly mystifying to me that the president could have allowed himself to repeatedly make that claim and that his "smart" staff didn't try to stop him from doing so.  Didn't he know it was inaccurate, didn't they?  If nothing else, they should have been aware of the fact that insurance is generally written for a single year and that companies routinely change or even cancel individual policies, especially those they deem unprofitable.  More to the point, the AFA specifically disallows policies that fail to meet minimum standards — ones that are bad insurance or effectively no insurance at all.  So, unlike what the president promised, not everyone could keep their policies even if they are "happy" with them.

Of, course while this misguided claim may have tipped the trustworthy numbers, the inept rollout overall did the core damage, a failing — or the ongoing perception of failing — that keeps on giving.  Before getting to that, let me say that I believe the Affordable Care Act will go down as one of Barack Obama's great achievements.  It won't be overturned and hopefully when the dust settles its real deficiencies, and there surely are some, will be addressed constructively and hopefully corrected.  Even then, will it fall short of what the country really needs?  Absolutely.  Until we achieve universal healthcare — Medicare for all — many Americans are likely to be seriously shortchanged.  That said, the ACA is a major step forward and its benefits should not be underestimated.  Think of just three transformative examples: disallowing denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, equalizing premiums for women and men and eliminating lifetime caps.  These all translate into huge benefits — the first and last protecting many families from the treat of losing life savings or even bankruptcy if a major extended illness strikes.

From the day of its passage, Obama, one of our most gifted presidential orators, has been unable to explain or properly sell the Affordable Care Act to the nation.  For sure he has had to endure a constant barrage of political and interest groups opposition, people who are working tirelessly and spending heavily to prevent its success.  Just as Regan discredited liberalism by pejoratively calling it the L-Word, Republicans dubbed the AFA Obamacare, a branding aimed it discrediting it from the start — his personal overreaching plan, not the law of the land.  They followed with a systematic and relentless campaign of misinformation.  They created a mythology that has helped confuse the public, often leading to negative views that objectively speaking run counter to its own self-interest. 

But all that doesn't excuse Obama and his administration's deficiency.  Considering the importance of the ACA to their legacy, it's nothing less than astounding (and maddening) that they so mismanaged the early rollout.  Telling us that the website is not the program is clearly the case.  So, too, is the fact that constructing a site of this complexity is bound to produce startup glitches.   But that isn't an excuse for its complete opening days breakdown.  Not only weren't potential users properly cautioned, Obama predicted an ease of use comparable to making purchases on Amazon or buying an airplane ticket.  Insurance is not a book, a toaster or even booking a round trip flight.  The site has largely been fixed but the damage to the president and to this important program remains.

It isn't only the ACA cockup that contributed to Obama's Annus Horibilis.  The Edward Snowden affair, which exposed the extent of NSA surveillance, added greatly to our discontent.  Of course, Obama didn't start these programs.  As discussed in an earlier post, their real origin can be traced back to the Cold War in the late 1940s and 50s.  Moreover, every major government around the globe that has the means and the will engages in various forms of espionage, including cyber empowered eavesdropping.  So, much of the global outcry has been disingenuous to say the least.  But the revelations came on Obama's watch highlighting two important things.  First is that, with his approval, the seemingly overreaching surveillance initiated after 9/11 has continued unabated.  Second, and perhaps equally important, Obama's campaign for the presidency, his record and (not inconsequentially) our expectations of him suggested something quite different.

As with the ACA, perceptions play a significant role here, but in just the opposite way.  The ACA is far better than the perception, but it turns out that the reality of the NSA under Obama's watch falls far short of what we had perceived it would be.  With regard to Iraq, Afghanistan and even Gitmo, we can somehow excuse action falling behind rhetoric by recognizing that campaigning is different than governing.  Iraq took longer to exit as is Afghanistan and Guantanamo still hasn't been closed.  We may not like the reasons, but can at least understand them.  The seemingly unchecked eavesdropping is something else entirely, not the least for the fact that, unlike the other three, it directly impacts on all of us and our daily lives.

Those of us who consider ourselves the President's supporters are frustrated, perplexed and even infuriated by the inept rollout of the ACA.  We fear that if it isn't quickly and, most importantly perceptibly, fixed early in 2014, it may tip the balance in the Senate and effectively end any semblance of a meaningful Obama presidency going forward.  With regard to the NSA revelations, even if they should not have come as a complete surprise (as noted that earlier post), they leave many of us with a varying sense of outrage.  However great that may be for us individually, we are left disheartened by the gap between the dream and, in this instance, the reality of Barack Obama's presidency.  We understand that Democrats, especially those who lean somewhat left rather than right, have constantly to prove themselves on national security.  That may be especially the case for those who have not served in the military.  But it's not an excuse we can buy.  We wanted more, expected more.

These frustrations and disappointments bring me to the Annus Horibilis for Americans at large.  Of course, it hasn't been that bad a year for those at the top of the American scale and that goes well beyond the 1%.  The economy is recovering, housing prices have firmed and the stock market is at all time highs.  Of course that means the rich are richer, but millions of others are seeing a rise in their retirement accounts and the value of our homes.  Unemployment is down which means that some people who were out of work last January have found a job.  New York City's incoming mayor campaigned on a platform focused on the two Americas — one riding high, the other in or near a deep hole.  For the second group, and for more of us than was the case not so long ago, 2013 was yet another year of challenge.  Incomes continue to stagnate and they are falling further behind with each inadequate paycheck or no paycheck at all.  To borrow Michael Harrington's term, the Other America may be concerned about the ACA and the NSA, but survival takes precedence and that has become more problematic for a larger swath of the citizenry.

So in some very important ways very many of us are bidding farewell to an Annus Horibilis.  But we dare not let it get us down.  There are some hopeful signs on the horizon, or at least we should be making something out of what went wrong this year — some lemonade out of the lemons.  The ACA stumbled, but it has brought some people into the class of insured and it has gotten us to talk about healthcare and how to make it better.  President Obama is expected to make some, hopefully meaningful, changes in the NSA program.  And, while way overdue, there seems to be a rising conversation about income inequality.  Late in the year Obama forcefully spoke out about the inequities, as did the new pope.  In New York where so many things seem to be going well — a strong post 9/11 recovery — an overwhelming majority opted for the candidate who put economic inequality at the top of his agenda.  We'll see how all this turns out, how it translates from rhetoric into action.  It's not in my nature to be unhopeful.


  1. One of my favourite cartoons was published (in the UK) on January 2, 1993, and I've never forgotten it: it showed QEII ripping off January 1 of her daily wall calendar, to reveal January 2, and thinking, :So far, so good."

  2. Ah, what were losing with digital calendars, nothing to rip off.