Obama's memorable year: The good, the bad, the ugly
WASHINGTON — It wasn't exactly a wonderful 2013 for President Obama — one commentator dubbed it "the worst year in Washington" — but the past 12 months have produced their share of memorable moments.
Between his two oaths of office in January and the now-famous "selfie" snapped in December, Obama's eventful 2013 revolved around the year's biggest issues: health care, the government shutdown, the Boston Marathon bombings, gun control, allegations against the Internal Revenue Service, a confrontation with Syria, a new opening to Iran, and near-constant polarization of Republicans and Democrats.
Among the highlights:
1. Backing away from the "fiscal cliff"
Obama pulled a late night on the very first day of the year, pledging to sign a last-minute congressional bill to head off the so-called fiscal cliff, a series of tax hikes and budget cuts that would otherwise have kicked in automatically, deflating the economy. Appearing in the White House press briefing room at 11:20 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2013, Obama talked about remaining economic challenges.
"The sum total of all the budget agreements we've reached so far proves that there is a path forward, that it is possible if we focus not on our politics but on what's right for the country. And the one thing that I think, hopefully, in the new year we'll focus on is seeing if we can put a package like this together with a little bit less drama, a little less brinksmanship, not scare the heck out of folks quite as much."
2. Two oaths
Like predecessors facing the same situation, Obama opted for a private swearing-in on the actual Inauguration Day — Jan. 20 — because it fell on a Sunday. Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts repeated the oath in a public ceremony on Monday, Jan. 21, after which the president delivered an inaugural address that decried political partisanship.
"Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time. For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect."
3. "A shameful day"
The president flashed some public anger on April 17, the day Senate Republicans blocked a vote on proposed gun-control measures a little more than four months after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
"If action by Congress could have saved one person, one child, a few hundred, a few thousand ... we had an obligation to try. And this legislation met that test. And too many senators failed theirs. … All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington."
4. Boston Marathon bombings
After the capture of a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings – following a tense manhunt that included the death of another suspect – Obama appeared in the briefing room shortly after 10 p.m. on April 19 to praise law enforcement, and the spirit of Boston. Referring to the perpetrators, Obama said:
"Whatever they thought they could ultimately achieve, they've already failed. They failed because the people of Boston refused to be intimidated. They failed because, as Americans, we refused to be terrorized. They failed because we will not waver from the character and the compassion and the values that define us as a country."
5. Here comes the rain again
In a White House Rose Garden press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 16, Obama took a question about claims that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups.
"It is just simply unacceptable for there to even be a hint of partisanship or ideology when it comes to the application of our tax laws," he said.
(The president also generated a memorable set of pictures as he asked a pair of Marines to hold umbrellas over him and Erdogan as rain fell.)
6. Defending the NSA
In the wake of news reports about the reach of National Security Agency surveillance programs — based on disclosures by NSA contractor Edward Snowden — Obama discussed the once-secret spy efforts while meeting with reporters during a trip to California on June 7.
"I think it's important to recognize that you can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society," he said.
7. "Trayvon could have been me"
Obama made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room on July 19, six days after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The nation's first African-American president spoke emotionally about criticism of the verdict.
"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. ... I think it's important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."
8. Tension with Putin
Relations with Russia were rocky throughout year, especially after Russia's decision to grant political asylum to Snowden. Obama memorably discussed his relationship with President Vladimir Putin during a news conference Aug 9.
"I don't have a bad personal relationship with Putin. ... I know the press likes to focus on body language and he's got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we're in conversations together, oftentimes it's very productive."
9. Storm over Egypt
Turmoil in Egypt — including a military takeover of the government that Obama and aides refused to call "a coup" — prompted the president on Aug. 15 to announce a slight cutback in U.S. assistance. Obama made the statement as he and his family vacationed on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
"While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back," he said.
10. Standoff with Syria
Amid reports he was ready to authorize strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government over the use of chemical weapons against anti-government rebels, Obama stunned observers with an Aug. 31 announcement that he would seek authorization from Congress for military action.
"I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why ... I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress."
(In September, Obama would embrace a Russia-brokered deal in which Syria would agree to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles.)
11. Talking with Iran
On Sept. 27, in another surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama announced he had just spoken by phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — the first such high-level contact with Iran in more than three decades.
"The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history."
12. Government shutdown
"At midnight last night, for the first time in 17 years, Republicans in Congress chose to shut down the federal government. Let me be more specific: One faction, of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government, shut down major parts of the government — all because they didn't like one law."
13. Apologies for health care
"And the American people — those who got cancellation notices — do deserve and have received an apology from me. … But I make no apologies for us taking this on because somebody, sooner or later, had to do it. I do make apologies for not having executed better over the last several months. … And that's on me. I mean, we fumbled the rollout on this health care law."
14. Talking with Iran, part 2
Late on a Saturday night, Nov. 23, Obama announced a six-month agreement with Iran in which Tehran agrees to limit parts of its nuclear program in exchange for a loosening of economic sanctions by the U.S. and it allies. The parties are now talking about a long-term deal.
"I have a profound responsibility to try to resolve our differences peacefully, rather than rush towards conflict," he said. "Today, we have a real opportunity to achieve a comprehensive, peaceful settlement, and I believe we must test it."
15. The handshake, the "selfie" and the Nelson Mandela memorial
Obama had a relatively short but eventful trip to South Africa for the Nelson Mandela memorial service on Dec. 10. He spurred debate when he shook hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro, one of the few U.S.-Cuban contacts since Fidel Castro's revolution more than a half-century ago. He also participated in a "selfie" photo with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt that went viral. The president also paid tribute to Mandela, the South African freedom fighter.
"Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don't agree with. He understood ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper's bullet."