The year started with great expectations, but has turned out to be a dud. Only the most routine matters have made — or seem likely to make — progress in 2013.
President Obama began his second term with promises and much promise. Gun control, deficit reduction and immigration reform were high on his list of legislative goals. Few insiders would have bet against them. The first two have fallen away, and the third is iffy at best.
Gun control went down with barely a shot fired in the Senate, despite the impetus provided by the massacre in Newtown, Conn. Reduction of the budget deficit was put on autopilot when the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration took effect. Now additional deficit-cutting has been shelved thanks to larger-than-expected tax collections and a slowdown in federal spending.
What’s left among major initiatives is immigration reform. However, that faces a tough slog in the Senate and a possibly impossible trajectory in the House of Representatives. Its leading Republican sponsor, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, has already signaled that he might bail on the plan he helped craft if changes — including guaranteed bolstering of border security — aren’t added as the bill moves through the Senate.
In other words, official Washington will devote lots of time to little more than housekeeping matters. Congress could pass a few appropriations bills, reauthorize farm programs and raise the federal borrowing limit to avoid the disaster that would come with default. What that means is that not much more than the basics are on track to succeed this year.
That’s a big problem for Mr. Obama. The more time that passes, the less political capital he’ll have to muscle through his priorities. Unless he acts quickly, he could lose his chance to make his presidency truly historic. He needs more accomplishments to distinguish himself.
More practically, the media abhors a vacuum, and that’s what persistent inaction is creating. Reporters have no choice but to fill their news holes. As a result, minor kerfuffles and governmental failures, which would otherwise be relegated to the second tier, become front-page news for lack of competition.
Scandals blossom in the absence of a serious agenda. That’s one reason the Obama administration has been battered by the terrible trifecta of the snatching of reporters’ telephone logs, the continuing suspicions about the attacks in Benghazi and, most importantly, the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service. The recent news that the government has compelled telephone and Internet companies to fork over information about average citizens has also raised concerns because of the dearth of impactful actions otherwise in the nation’s capital.
Distractions take center stage when the main acts don’t show up.
The same is true of foreign-policy missteps. The public would read and hear a lot less about the debacles in, say, Syria and North Korea if more was happening in Washington that affected real people in the United States.
The one issue that could change this analysis is tax reform. The chairmen of Congress’ tax-writing committees are determined to draft legislation that would lower tax rates and eliminate loopholes. Major tax legislation could begin to bubble up as a result of their personal commitments to the cause, and nothing would be routine or mundane about that. Some of the most powerful interests in the country would have billions of dollars on the line, and average families would have a great deal to gain.
Almost no one imagines that anything as massive and consequential as tax reform could move rapidly enough to be completed by year’s end. The bottom line, then, is that 2013, which should be the re-elected president’s best chance for significant victories, stands to hardly even be newsworthy. Unless, of course, you think congressional investigations into mistakes constitute news.
Jeffrey Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.
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