WASHINGTON - Who had the worst year in Washington? The answer is easy: official Washington.
In the past year, Americans witnessed the following: the diminishment of President Obama's political standing and credibility; the least productive Congress in decades; a partial shutdown of the government caused by a misguided tea party Republican strategy; the deeply flawed implementation of the Affordable Care Act; and the legal and political fallout from revelations about the National Security Agency's intelligence-gathering activities.
Everything on that list helped to undermine public confidence in politicians, political leaders, and government institutions.
Lots of people or groups had bad years. Obama ends 2013 at a low ebb, and because he is the president, his problems stand out. But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) didn't exactly have a year to remember, either. Democrats in Congress rate even lower than the president in the eyes of the public. Republicans rank below both the president and the Democrats..
Washington, with the media as active participants, has become obsessed with winners and losers. It has been a banner year for measuring ups and downs, at least for those inside the Beltway. What counts for most Americans is something different. They expect at least minimal competence and productivity from those they send to Washington to represent them.
Everyone is responsible in some way for the year's problems. The president bears the blame for the health-care mess, which has done as much as anything to raise doubts about the federal government's capacity to manage big initiatives.
Republicans forced the government shutdown. Their party's tea party wing has brought obstructionism to new levels. Those in the executive branch overseeing the health-care law or the intelligence-gathering programs also helped create public doubts about the competence of government.
External factors have contributed, as well. Deep partisan polarization in Washington and around the country makes compromise difficult for both philosophical and political reasons. The economy's uneven recovery continues to impose strains on many families, which, in turn, generates resentment of the ruling class. Washington is seen as much as ever as a place that looks out for those with power and money at the expense of everyone else.
Will things improve in 2014? Maybe. This year is ending with some bright spots. The bipartisan budget agreement should bring relief from the conflict over funding the government, thus providing opportunities to deal with other pending issues, from the farm bill to immigration.
There is still the debt-ceiling fight to get through. Republicans say they want some concessions from the White House in return for raising the limit, and the president said Friday that he would not negotiate over the need to pay past bills. But if Republicans flinched at letting the country default during the shutdown, are they prepared to risk it next year?
Brighter still is the latest evidence of a recovering economy. Economic growth in the last quarter was strong. The economy appears to be gathering some momentum - enough for the Federal Reserve to begin to taper its bond-buying policies.
Unemployment, however, remains too high at 7 percent and labor-force participation too low. Long-term unemployment is an even bigger problem.
At his news conference Friday, Obama said he hoped that 2014 could be a year of action.
Immigration is the biggest issue on which there is optimism that Democrats and Republicans can find a way to compromise.
The president may want 2014 to be a year of action, but it is also an election year. At this early point, Republicans expect to hold the House. But Democrats are at risk of losing control of the Senate, which would mean major problems for Obama's final two years in office.
Whether Washington has a better year in 2014 depends on many things, but two people stand out as keys to the future: the president and the speaker. Boehner manages an unruly House. He and his Republicans will continue to do what they can to frustrate implementation of the health-care law. Obama no longer hides his disdain for congressional GOP hard-liners or his impatience with the demands of legislative give and take.
But a larger issue is what path each chooses in the coming year. How will they respond when finding some common ground collides with demands from their colleagues to help put their parties in the strongest position to win midterm elections?
Their choices will not be easy. Obama and Boehner are rivals with constituencies to defend and represent. But they all are also responsible for restoring the health of a political system that has lost the trust and confidence of a majority of Americans.