Even with no real scandal and only one demonstrable policy blunder, the health care rollout, President Obama had a miserable 2013 as his public standing plummeted. History suggests it is tough for a second-term president to rebound. Here are five ways Obama could defy those odds.• Open up the wagons: Ingrained habits are hard to change, and the 52-year-old incumbent isn’t going to transform himself. Still, he may appreciate how much his insularity hurt him last year. Over the past month, there have been three important additions to the White House ranks: John Podesta, a former chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s administration, who, other than Jim Baker in Ronald Reagan’s administration, was the most effective occupant of that position; plus Phil Schiliro, as health care adviser, and Katie Fallon, who starts as congressional liaison, both with considerable credibility.
Will the president listen to them in the crunch? It will be instructive to see whether Podesta will be limited to energy and environmental matters, as the White House initially suggested, or has a wide-ranging portfolio. One encouraging sign, some Democrats say, is that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough realizes the value of broadening the inner circle.• Mend health care: The president and Democrats are paying a huge price for the dreadful rollout of the Affordable Care Act and HealthCare.gov. The goal of 7 million enrollees by April 1 is beyond reach. There must, however, be a substantial number – say, 5 million, with a quarter of those young people – to keep the support of the insurance industry and prevent an explosion in premiums.
Obama had to enlist an expert to fix the website. The critical question in 2014 will be whether a chief executive is tapped to run the entire program. If White House resistance persists, look for more problems and controversies that will make the website screw-ups seem tame.• Go on the offensive: On health care, the best the White House can do is to neutralize the issue. The president’s camp knows it needs to put the Republicans on the defensive elsewhere: by pushing an extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless and raising the minimum wage. The president also plans to emphasize the one issue that scares mainstream Republicans – immigration reform, which House conservatives threaten to kill.
The improving economy affords the president an opportunity to challenge Republicans on income inequality. Critics will yell about class warfare. Yet the incongruity of the recovery – good for the well-to-do, not so good for the working class – is beyond dispute, as was well-documented recently by Steven Rattner, a former Wall Street executive and Obama’s automobile industry rescue czar.• Beyond the water’s edge: One of the few bright spots for Team Obama last year was Secretary of State John Kerry. Like most second-term presidents, Obama views geopolitical achievements as a way to burnish his legacy.
A nuclear deal with the Iranians would be one such success; less likely, though conceivable, is genuine progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Foreign policy achievements, however, rarely elevate a second-term president’s popularity. Failure with Iran or a conflict in the South China Sea could undermine him further.• Luck: Events beyond a president’s control can shape his destiny. Last year’s deal over Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile was more due to luck, with the unexpected help of Russia, than skill. The outcome was much better than the alternatives. Obama may not be so lucky next time.
The economy, as always, will be critical. With the Republican-controlled House, the president is devoid of realistic policy options to accelerate growth. But the psychology and perceptions may matter a lot.
The odds remain against a real recovery for the president. If most of the boxes above are checked off, or if the not-so-loyal Republican opposition reverts to self-destruction, Obama’s good fortune may continue.