After a fruitless year in Washington, New Year's blues ahead

As President Obama greets the new year amid the balmy breezes of Hawaii, he must brace himself for the stiff winds that await him back here in the nation's dysfunctional capital.

Desperate to accentuate the positive, his political strategists back on the mainland have heralded the news that more than a million Americans have signed up for insurance through federal and state exchanges under the auspices of his troubled Affordable Care Act, far short of earlier expectations that 3 million would have done so by now.

Dampening down administration pleasure that a budget compromise was reached through the rare bipartisan teamwork of Republican Paul Ryan in the House and Democrat Patty Murray in the Senate, the opposition party has renewed and sustained its pushback against Obamacare.

The White House had hoped to pivot from this exhausting fight to such objectives as immigration reform and another try at stiffer gun controls. Instead, Mr. Obama must count on a more robust public response to the health care program, not at all guaranteed, to clear the political playing field.

Also, while trying to fire up lower-income support with a proposal to boost the federal minimum wage, the White House must attempt to extend long-term unemployment benefits to more than a million hard-strapped jobless beneficiaries who now face a cutoff.

Prominent economists warn that if Congress fails to extend those benefits, it will only hamper the still-struggling recovery. Nevertheless, the political universe seems mired again in the old ideological class warfare: the Republicans as beneficent creators of largess against the Democrats as extravagant redistributors of it to a nation of moochers.

It's a sad rerun of the final weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign, in which Mitt Romney sealed his doom with his witless declaration that the votes of "47 percent of Americans" were beyond his reach. The theme that they had been bought off by Democratic handouts through various social safety programs echoes again in the current debate.

Added to the old GOP insistence that Big Brother government has no right to require Americans to buy health insurance they don't want, more persuasive argument has blossomed that bureaucratic incompetence botched the heart of the Obama's domestic agenda.

Visions of a businessman's efficiency dance in the imaginations of the Republican faithful, if only one of their own were in charge. Yet, had they won the last election, Obamacare probably would be dead and buried by now, Romney having disavowed the law that was based, ironically, on his own health-care reform as Massachusetts governor.

In the midst of all this second-term gloom, the Democratic administration has sought to find political refuge and new energy by focusing on income inequality. The phenomenon is seen glaringly in the booming stock market and skyrocketing profits for big business, which is thriving on higher productivity from fewer workers, and its reluctance to hire more.

But the Democrats' effort to address this key issue also facilitates the old Republican ideological bromide of "socialistic" redistribution of wealth, which would make every conscientious attempt to heat up the economy sound like heated-up Karl Marx. Which apparently will be fine to the likes of the rabble-rousing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his merry tea party band, who are more than willing to fire up "class warfare" rhetoric.

In all, the outlook for Obama's fifth presidential year is neither bright nor hopeful for any positive resolution of current divisions, at least until the midterm congressional elections in November. Then, either one-party control will return on Capitol Hill, one way or the other, or divided government will likely slog on for the final two years of an Obama presidency born more of hope than of achievable aspirations.

The old notion that divided government assures a desirable balance, a corrective mechanism against excessive power-wielding and an inducement to compromise has been emphatically discredited in the course of the Obama tenure. In the remaining three years, one can only hope that the hard lessons of the last five will somehow persuade the leaders in both parties to open their eyes to the imperative of working together, and of getting their own houses in order in the process.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is

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