Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Closing Thoughts on 2013, Opening Thoughts on 2014...

Closing Thoughts on 2013, Opening Thoughts on 2014...

2013 was a year of frustration for just about everybody. President Obama's year was especially so on a variety of issues from the botched Healthcare.gov rollout to the handful of "mini-scandals" involving the IRS, the Justice Department tapping various reporters phone lines, the Edward Snowden revelations regarding the NSA activities, the remnants of the FBI's operation called "fast and furious," to large question marks surrounding our foreign policy in no less than three countries (Afghanistan, Israel, and Syria.) Make no mistake, we also haven't heard the end of the Benghazi tragedy, as you can count on it being kept alive at least through the 2016 General Election.

As we pivot to 2014, it appears the issues with the Healthcare.gov website have been mostly corrected and signups through the month of December have been robust. While that's good news for the Obama Administration, it doesn't mean there's calmer waters ahead. Its a fairly safe bet when those first patients start walking into emergency rooms early on the morning of January 1st, there's going to be many questions on who has insurance, who thinks they have insurance but who doesn't. What physicians and hospitals are no longer "in network?" Are the cyber connections needed for a smooth transition from the old days to the new days under Obamacare up and running correctly? Glitches can be expected and their presence won't mean the entire program is a failure. Nor will the stories that we're bound to hear about people and families telling their stories of anger and frustration because something didn't work the way it was supposed to. Other large social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid all experienced growing pains when they were rolled out. All figured those problems out and are wildly popular and in no real danger of being eliminated any time soon. The fact that social programs need tweaked from time to time is to be expected.

When the White House wasn't defending itself against this or that story, there were a few successes. The defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act was a landmark ruling for same sex couples and it seems every month another state votes in same sex marriage rights. Eighteen States or 36% of the country has passed such legislation onto its books with more to follow in 2014.

With the defeat of gun legislation in the Senate back in April, it was understood that 2013 would not be a year for much progress on that front. Despite the ongoing efforts of the Sandy Hook parents and other gun control advocates, the votes just aren't there, despite what polling tells us in terms of most Americans supporting enhanced background checks in the purchase of a gun. Which is too bad. I don't and I suspect President Obama doesn't want to take away the average gun-owners pistols or hunting rifles. We just want to make sure only the people who should get a gun, are able to. I think that gun reform will only happen in a time when some large event like the Sandy Hook shooting hasn't happened. In the aftermath of such an event, emotions on both sides are running too high and compromise is almost impossible. To be clear, there is no gun reform conceivable that would've stopped Adam Lanza. We also shouldn't craft gun reform policy on the emotions of a tragedy such as that. Cooler heads and calmer times will make for better policy outcomes.

The outrage that Mr. Snowden kicked up with his revelations on the NSA surveillance programs certainly hasn't gone away nor will it any time soon. Questions abound from is the FISA Court really a serious entity and not a rubber stamp for requests (I say it is a serious body) to the following: Since our communications data from cell phones, emails and other internet activity is compiled on some level, whom do we trust most to oversee it? A publicly funded government agency or a profit seeking private enterprise? As unseemly as it seems, I'd rather have the Government browsing through this type info than I would Verizon, AT&T or Sprint. Truth is, they're all doing it. By the way, I say Snowden is a criminal, a traitor and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. He is no patriot. He endangered a great many of our citizens and put this country at large at risk.

A few words about Syria. Chemical weapons are clearly taboo around the world and the vast, vast majority of countries have signed treaties rejecting their use. As well they should. On the other hand, a death is a death and it eludes me how anywhere from several hundred to 1400 death from chemical weapons is a stop the press, prepare for war type event but a death toll in excess of 100 thousand Syrians not to mention upwards of 9 million who have been uprooted from their homes and are now refugees seems to barely register on Mr. Obama's foreign policy radar. With virtually all the moderate Syrians gone, the country has become hell on earth for those who have remained.

2013 wasn't exactly a banner year for Congress, to be sure. Approval ratings in the single-digits make President Obama's mid 40's look positively wonderful. Second terms are always rough on Presidential approval ratings, so don't get too excited if Obama's numbers don't bounce back. He's not far from lame duck status. Speaker of the House John Boehner finished stronger than he started as the efforts of Paul Ryan and Patty Murray found some common ground (but no compromises) on a new budget bill. Next year will see the start-up of the mid-term election campaigns so I suspect we'll see some additional bi-partisan legislation so both sides can claim "...a willingness to reach across party lines and do what's right for the American people, blah, blah, blah..."

You know who had a great 2013? Pope Francis. Big time...

2014 will be a somewhat similar year to 2013 in terns of Washington DC. With the passing of each month on the calendar, President Obama will only become weaker and weaker. Given Congress' obstruction toward the White House when Obama was at his most powerful, I can only imagine how bad it will get once we hit the 2014 mid-terms. Look for the President to come out of the gate strong and ambitious in the new year. He's got until November to accomplish his next set of goals. After the midterms, he'll be at his weakest.

Speaking of mid terms, I think the Democrats will lose a few seats in the Senate but hold onto majority status, the Republicans will gain a few seats in the House. More interesting in my mind will be the coming fights between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party members. Look for the House to welcome a few more Tea Party legislators to its ranks in January 2015. (Get the popcorn...)

On a positive note for the administration, if Obamacare continues to see good enrollment numbers and can minimize the early snafus and ensuing negative media coverage, the GOP will find itself in a bad place of still wanting to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. The optics of such a strategy will be of one party trying to take away something that is helping a great number of people with no clear replacement solution in place. (GOP ideas such as selling across state lines, HSA's and tort reform are not solutions, they just sound like good ideas until you understand the problems with all of them. Selling across state lines leads to adverse selection which leaves the people who need insurance the most in the worst position to get it, HSA's are great if you can afford them, but too many Americans simply can't and Tort reform addresses about 1.5% of all health care spending. It just doesn't do much for that many.)

I think there's a less than 50% chance that President Obama succeeds in raising the minimum wage. If he surprises me, he wins....if Congress blocks him, they've just handed the Democratic candidate for President in 2016 a major talking point.

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