As he prepares for the political battles of 2014, President Obama is taking a more populist approach and combining it with a more combative attitude toward his adversaries.
He is advocating policies that have long been popular on the political left, such as scaling back the economic and social advantages enjoyed by the rich and big corporations, and he has served notice that he will address the problems of income inequality and lack of social mobility in a more aggressive way – all to the consternation of conservatives.
Obama is expected to describe his 2014 agenda in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28. But he has already indicated that he will be pushing hard for some long-standing priorities, such as overhauling the immigration laws to give millions of people who entered the United States illegally the chance to gain legal residency or citizenship.
He wants to limit climate change, which he feels is a particular danger to future generations. He is eager to protect public lands from excessive development. He is looking for ways to revive the issue of gun control. He is staunchly defending his health care law despite implacable Republican attacks and the many problems associated with its implementation during the past several weeks. And he wants to raise the minimum wage as part of his effort to lift those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
A guiding principle for Obama in 2014 will be using unilateral actions and executive orders to bypass congressional Republicans who have blocked much of his agenda, Democratic advisers say. John Podesta, Obama's new senior counselor, is a strong advocate of such end-runs around Congress, and his presence at the White House is expected to fuel Obama's unilateralist instincts.
A senior White House official told the Wall Street Journal, "Our approach will be to test as much as possible for principled compromise where Republicans are willing, but also to push ahead with non-legislative solutions where Congress stonewalls."
Fighting income inequality is one of Podesta's specific policy goals, along with standing up to ultra-conservatives in the House of Representatives, whom he has compared to a cult. In an article published in Politico just prior to his appointment, Podesta wrote that Obama and the popular Pope Francis are on the same wave length on economic issues, and he pointed out that the pontiff has criticized "trickle-down theories" of economic growth for leaving the poor behind.
Podesta, a former White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton who has spent the past few years running a liberal advocacy group, argued that, "Income inequality in the United States today has reached levels last seen during the Roaring '20s. Over the last three decades, the top 1 percent of incomes have risen by 279 percent, while the bottom fifth of workers have seen an increase of less than 20 percent. In 1979, the middle 60 percent of households took home 50 percent of U.S. income. By 2007, their share was just 43 percent."
In a speech Dec. 4, Obama made similar points and declared that addressing the combined trends of increasing inequality and decreasing mobility represent "the defining challenge of our time."
He added: "A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit." He called for a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on corporations and the rich, and more federal investment in research and job-creating infrastructure projects such as building roads, bridges and schools.
But Americans are deeply split over the how much the government should do about income inequality. Forty-seven percent consider inequality a "very big" problem, according to a recent Pew Research survey. But only 17 percent want the government to make fighting inequality its top priority, Pew finds; instead, 41 percent say job creation should be the top priority, followed by 28 percent who want to reduce the national debt.
A former adviser to a Republican president says, "In talking about economic inequality, President Obama is making it an issue between haves and have-nots. In the past, the saving grace of the United States was that you had the opportunity to be poor or rich. There's still lots of opportunity in the U.S. but the president is making it not the land of opportunity but a place where government gives out everything, like the old Soviet Union. It's a very dangerous, slippery slope, pitting people against each other."
Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress have a different approach. They favor lower taxes on corporations and the rich, less regulation in order to free businesses to make money, invest and expand, and more restrictions on organized labor. Republican leaders say Americans generally don't want to penalize the successful and the wealthy; they want to become successful and wealthy themselves.
There was a moment of hope for a new spirit of compromise at the end of 2013 when both major parties in Congress agreed on a modest budget compromise, which Obama endorsed. It did little to solve the country's fundamental fiscal problems but it did avoid another messy confrontation and a government shutdown, so it was deemed progress of a sort.
Yet the differences between Democrats and Republicans are so deep, and Obama has shown such an inability to bridge them, that the outlook for 2014 is for more battles on issues ranging from the budget to the debt ceiling and the minimum wage. Senate Republicans also are upset because majority Democrats, with White House support, changed a key rule and made it easier to win approval for Obama's nominations for judgeships and other offices. GOP leaders billed this as a power grab.
Dimming the prospects for compromise are the midterm elections in November. The major parties are expected to cater as much as possible to their bases to generate turnout rather than reach out to each other or appeal to the political center. And this will probably harden positions all around.
Overall, Obama's popularity is waning. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that only 43 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, 11 percentage points below his favorable rating from a year ago. Fifty-five percent disapprove. The job approval of Congress is worse, but Obama's poor ratings mean many legislators won't fear him if he takes them on, minimizing his influence.
He is also suffering from a decline in the number of Americans who believe he is trustworthy, partly a result of false promises he made that Americans could keep their health insurance policies if they liked them under Obamacare. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that only 37 percent of Americans believe he is honest and straightforward, a drop of 10 percentage points from the start of 2013. Adding to his problems were leaks of classified information by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that revealed a vast government surveillance operation that troubled many citizens.
At his news conference in mid-December just before he left on his Hawaii vacation, Obama glossed over his low poll ratings. Instead, he tried to focus on the future. "I think 2014 needs to be a year of action," he declared, adding that the economy is getting stronger and he wants to keep the momentum going. The government, in fact, recently reported that the economy grew at a 4.1 percent annual rate from July through September, the fastest rate since late 2011, and the unemployment rate is 7 percent, a five-year low. "I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America," the president said.
But unemployment remains a fundamental concern. Beyond the 7 percent jobless rate, many Americans are under-employed, and millions have joined the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Says Republican strategist Frank Donatelli, former White House political director for President Ronald Reagan: "I always want the economy to get better but by historical standards this is not a robust recovery." He says unemployment remains far too high and the federal debt is still a huge problem.
After an embarrassing 16-day government shutdown in October, continuing gridlock over many issues, and the messy implementation of Obama's signature health care law, Americans don't have a lot of faith in Washington, including the president. A recent Gallup Poll finds that 72 percent of Americans say big government is more of a threat to America's future than either big business or big labor, a record high in the 50 years that Gallup has been asking the question. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said: "The country's expectation is that not a lot will get done [in 2014] and some of that attaches to the president. But the frustration is largely directed at the Congress."
On foreign policy, Obama has staked much of his reputation on some major gambles. He has ended the U.S. combat role in Iraq and is winding down the war in Afghanistan, but violence is escalating again in both countries. He has entered a partnership with Russia to pressure the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria to give up its chemical weapons, but Assad remains in power and a brutal civil war still rages. He has embarked on a bold six-month negotiation with the regime in Iran to stop any nuclear weapons program that Tehran may be developing. If it succeeds, Obama will be hailed as a brilliant diplomat. If it fails, he will be condemned as a hopeless naif.
Overall, the best opportunity for Obama to lift his presidency out of the trough and build momentum will be his State of the Union address in late January. This is the traditional moment when a president commands the country's attention as he addresses a joint session of Congress to set forth his agenda for the year.
The question is whether the damage from 2013 will be an insurmountable obstacle to Barack Obama's recovery and the government's success in 2014.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.