Barack Obama

ISIS, Ferguson, the Senate, Ukraine, Ebola, border kids. Really, this was a pretty awful sixth year for the president. Not that he’s acting like it.

By James Oliphant
December 30, 2014

You can make a compelling case that 2014 was the worst year for President Obama since, well, the year before. And, in fact, the president spent much of this year trying to recover from some body blows he took in the final months of 2013, when, in short order, Congress rebuffed him on Syria and the federal health care exchange imploded.

Those setbacks ate away at Obama’s public support. According to Gallup, the president began 2014 with a 41 percent approval rating, and he’s ending it a tick or two higher. He’s also ending the year as a certified lame duck, facing two final years with a hostile Congress and the political conversation centering around the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul.

Losing the Senate punctuated a year when Obama again saw more bad moments than good, and largely garnered more criticism than praise, especially from fellow Democrats, who were quick to blame him as the party’s political fortunes declined. More that that, though, it was a year of stomach-churning uncertainty, with one airliner disappearing over the Pacific and another being shot down over Europe, a savage terrorist threat on the march in Iraq, continued civil war in Syria, and Ebola raging through Africa and touching the U.S.

Paradoxically, the midterm walloping seemed to liberate Obama. As if now resigned to the reality that he has fewer partners to work with than ever, he is freer to pursue his own agenda. And he ended the year with decisive moves on immigration, climate change, and opening up relations with Cuba, all of which infuriated his opponents but left the White House feeling reinvigorated.

So, here’s the year, warts and roses all. These are the president’s 10 worst episodes of 2014 and then five of his best:


1) The Ghost of Kobe. In an interview with The New Yorker that ran in January, Obama was seemingly dismissive of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” When ISIL began claiming territory in Syria and Iraq in massive chunks, culminating in the seizure of Tikrit in June, no one at the White House was using basketball analogies any longer. Obama looked like he had badly underestimated the threat. By August, the president was on TV, telling a war-worn American public that U.S. forces were going back into the region. It didn’t help matters when, at an August press conference, the president suggested that “we don’t have a strategy yet” when it came to containing the menace. Those types of moments, combined with Vladimir Putin’s surprise push into Crimea, made the White House look off balance on foreign affairs—and American confidence in the president on that issue plummeted. (As did American confidence in Kobe Bryant.)

2) Bowe Won’t Go. The White House learned the hard way that not every soldier rescued from captivity gets a ticker-tape parade. No sooner did Obama stage a celebratory event in the Rose Garden in May with the parents of freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was swapped for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo, than critics on both sides of the aisle started howling. Bergdahl was accused of deserting his unit in Afghanistan, while Obama was accused of violating the stated official position of never negotiating with terrorists. The White House argued this was a standard end-of-war prisoner exchange, but even that was problematic as it seemed to elevate the Taliban to the level of heads of state. And there were worries that the trade placed a bounty on heads of U.S. soldiers.

3) NSA You Will. Remember that big speech Obama gave in January about reforming the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices—particularly the collection in bulk of Americans’ telephone records? In December, a federal court quietly reauthorized the collection program for another 90 days after Congress failed to pass a reform bill. Civil libertarians have long said that Obama can end the metadata collection program on his own, and they charge that the administration is using congressional gridlock as an excuse to keep it intact. Stay tuned as the issue is likely to resurface in the new GOP Congress.

4) Linked-Out. Few people begrudge a president his leisure time, but it’s more worrisome when a pastime turns into a metaphor for what critics charged was an increasingly checked-out Obama. Every warm weekend seemingly saw Obama hitting the links, even as the world, at times, felt like it was wobbling a bit between Iraq, Ukraine, the protests in Ferguson, Mo., the spread of Ebola, and other crises. The outcry reached its peak when the president, while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in August, gave a somber public statement about the beheading of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State and then was photographed yukking it up on the course, providing his very own Fahrenheit 9/11 moment. Obama later conceded that the “optics” of the moment were bad.

5) The Bear Is Lost. Optics were a continual problem for this White House. In a bit of brand marketing in July, aides started to promote the notion that Obama “the bear” was no longer going to be caged by gridlocked Washington. “The Bear Is Loose!” went the campaign. Ultimately, it led to the president being photographed playing pool and drinking beer in Colorado just as waves and waves of refugee children from Central America were spilling across the southwestern border. Obama then decided not to travel to the border to see the situation for himself, likely fearful of what the optics of that situation would do for his push to reform the nation’s immigration system. Instead, he staged an awkward press conference hundreds of miles up the road in Dallas. Weeks later, the situation played out again when Obama went forward with a public event in Delaware just as news of a jetliner shot down over Ukraine was flooding the airwaves and then attending a Democratic fundraiser that evening.

6) Below the Fray. The border crisis foreshadowed other moments in the fall when the president chose a low profile in a pair of incendiary events that had the public divided. When protests erupted in Ferguson over the killing by police of an African-American man, Michael Brown, Obama, vacationing on the Vineyard, issued a statement expressing his condolences. When another round of protests was sparked after a grand jury failed to indict the police officer who shot Brown, Obama went on TV to plead for calm. But at no point did he seem inclined to travel to Ferguson to meet directly with the aggrieved. And when Senate Democrats released a report earlier this month concluding that the Central Intelligence Agency had engaged in repeated episodes of torture and had misrepresented its effectiveness, the president pointedly refused to endorse it, or address it publicly in any way. The issues were intertwined in that both speak to the abuse of state power—and perhaps it was good politics for Obama to stay out of both. But his absence was felt.
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