Obama's really bad year went beyond health care and America's borders.
FORTUNE — In Washington, where politics has sadly become sport — who’s up, down, on the way out or ready to rebound — the scores are in as to who had the worst year in Washington in 2013 as we look ahead to 2014, and the winner of that dubious distinction goes to U.S. President Barack Obama.
That was the verdict according to Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, who cited a year dominated by scandals, leaks of classified information, and the failed launch of a federal health insurance exchange that went to the heart of the President’s signature first-term achievement, “Obamacare,” or more officially, the so-called Affordable Care Act.
But what of the view from Washington on who had the worst year in 2013 when it comes to Asia? With Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra besieged by tens of thousands of demonstrators these past few months — some had even succeeded in cutting off electricity and water supply to her offices — to the solid trouncing of then-Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and her party in September elections, the candidates for worst year in Asia are many.
Yet, in Washington-centric Washington, the award goes once again to one of its own: President Obama had the worst year in Asia.
He wins the second dubious distinction for failing to add substance to style in the once much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia,” and ceding the initiative to others on everything from Myanmar to quite literally the moon — China lunar landing, anyone?
As with so much else, 2013 began with much promise and dare we say hope for the U.S. president in Asia. Fresh off his reelection, Obama closed out 2012 with a landmark visit to Myanmar — or Burma as U.S. policy dictates it be called — and the lifting or suspension of a range of sanctions.
Asia longed for his return, symbolic though it might have been, as this past year unfolded, and a more robust pivot, or “rebalancing,” of U.S. efforts in Asia that went beyond defense and diplomacy. That never came to pass, as Obama became a serial canceler in a region where form, face, and protocol matter.
Amid battles over the U.S. budget, he canceled long-planned stops in the Philippines, a long-time U.S. ally, and in Malaysia, which was playing host to an entrepreneurship summit building off of an initiative Obama had announced at his “A New Beginning” speech delivered with great fanfare in June 2009 in Cairo. Then he canceled his entire Asia trip, including participation in key regional summits in Indonesia and Brunei, ceding the stage to China.
The emperor had no clothes. The Asia pivot was seen as more about presentation than implementation. Or as one Asia diplomat was reported to have quipped after Obama’s cancellation, “There’s just one problem with the U.S. ‘pivot-to-Asia’ strategy. The U.S. is not part of it.”
Bogged down by a recalcitrant Congress, as well as by problems of his own making, including perceived indecisiveness on Syria, and just plain bad luck — Edward Snowden’s revelations of the extent of National Security Agency’s spying operations just as Obama sought to raise the issue of Chinese spying at a California summit with China’s leader — Obama’s really bad year went beyond health care and America’s borders.
All is not lost, though. There is still time to turn around the situation. Talks toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement continue, the U.S. president is expected in the region in the spring, and China’s increasing assertiveness in the region is driving Asian nations closer to the U.S. There is still time for Obama to work with U.S. congressional leaders of both parties to add substance to rhetoric and a pivot that goes beyond defense and diplomacy to include business, culture, and education.
The worst (and best) of the rest
Really bad year
Jang Song Thaek, for losing his life, if not his head.
Despite being the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a vice-chairman in North Korea’s military, Jang was found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government and promptly executed, leading experts to believe that the episode was meant more as a warning shot to others in North Korea. It was also a clear sign that this North Korean apple does not fall far from the tree, and that family is not everything.
The Asian journalist, for barely surviving a year of living dangerously.
Whether facing increasing state harassment and imprisonment, if not outright murder, Asia’s journalists were increasingly challenged in their ability to speak truth to power. The recent killings of Filipino radio hosts Rogelio “Tata” Estrada Butalid and Michael Diaz Milo dramatized the plight and occupational hazards of being a journalist in Southeast and East Asia.
Nguyen Tan Dung, for failing to launch a much-needed “Doi Moi 2.0.”
The Vietnamese prime minister barely survived a rare parliamentary “low confidence vote” and was accused by lawmakers of not having the vision or the muscle to right Vietnam’s underperforming economy, reform its education system, and root out corruption. The excitement and promise of reforms heralded some two decades ago under “Doi Moi” are in need of a serious reboot.
Aung San Suu Kyi, for falling from grace.
Democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi came under heavy criticism this year, accused of placing her own political aspirations above the welfare of Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority and of failing to outright condemn the anti-Muslim purges that have coincided with that country’s political and economic reforms.
Hun Sen, for doing it his way (every year)
You could say that the Cambodian prime minister always has a good year, and that’s the way it’s been for the nearly 30 years he’s been in power. This year brought a close election and a reality check from the Cambodia National Rescue Party, but in true Hun Sen style he ignored calls for new elections and called everyone’s bluff to withhold foreign aid to his country.
Dennis Rodman, for taking “Basketball Diplomacy” into overtime
The piercings, the tattoos, the feather boas — not sure where they all fit in diplomatic protocol, but the five time NBA champion is taking sports diplomacy into uncharted territory — North Korea. Not since the 1970’s, which saw “ping-pong” diplomacy used to establish relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, has sport been as central in foreign affairs.
Xi Jinping, for putting Chinese (tire) tracks on the moon
The Chinese president locked down his leadership control, stole the headlines from a missing-in-action U.S. president in key Asia summits and joined a billion Chinese in proudly watching China become only the third nation to land a spacecraft on the moon.
Really good year
Shinzo Abe, for bringing hope back to Japan
Whether it’s his “Abenomics” which has breathed life into Japan’s flat-lining economy or his own pivot to Asia which saw him increase engagement across the region, the Japanese prime minister’s actions are instilling confidence at home and being noticed abroad.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo is a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia, and an associate of RiverPeak Group.