Politically, 2014 will likely be remembered as the year President Obama's party lost control of the Senate, leaving him to grapple with an all-Republican Congress in the final two years of his presidency.
This was a big loss in a year where the president didn't have that many victories. He was able to make a mark with some environmental regulations, and the economy is the best shape it's seen since he took office, but it's unclear how much his policies affected that. The year concluded with a budget deal that drove a wedge between Mr. Obama and many congressional Democrats.
When you consider the other defining issues of 2014 -- the U.S. response to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Mr. Obama's domestic agenda -- the results are a bit more mixed Here's a look at his year overall:
Environmental policies: Though Mr. Obama would have preferred major environmental legislation, like a law that would have limited carbon emissions and perhaps allowed emission credit trading, it was clear not long into his first term that this was too ambitious. But his administration did win some victories on environmental policy in 2014. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a new rule for power plants that burn fossil fuel. The rule would mandate a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and the president followed up on the rule in November with the announcement of a major deal with the Chinese that sets ambitious targets for reducing the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. The EPA also proposed in November strengthening air quality standards that could help reduce asthma and other deadly lung conditions.
The economy: The U.S. economy is in better shape this year than it has been since the start of the Obama administration, showing five percent growth over the summer, stronger consumption, a booming stock market and unemployment down to 5.8 percent. The signs of a healthy economy, though, aren't necessarily due to any action on the part of the administration -- none of the president's growth initiatives were passed, and the most that can be said for Washington is that there was no threat of a government shutdown or debt default to create volatility in the markets. But, as Princeton University U.S. political history professor Julian Zelizer told CBS News, "Economic improvement of any sort is a victory for the president."
Health care: The Affordable Care Act has so far managed to survive all congressional and judicial challenges thrown its way, though it faces another one in 2015. Unlike the disastrous 2013 rollout of healthcare.gov, the federal insurance marketplace, open enrollment for 2014 seems to be going relatively smoothly. The rate of uninsured Americans is also on the decline, falling by 3.8 million in the first quarter of 2014. Plus, health care costs are still on the rise, but at a slower rate than they have increased historically.
Cuba: Mr. Obama announced his intent to normalize relations with Cuba earlier this month, a historic move that will begin to thaw a 50-year chill in dealings with the island nation. If the move helps the Cuban people and destabilizes the regime of the Castro brothers, the president will receive credit for the push. Still, Zelizer said the move isn't that much of a breakthrough. "In some ways it's a relic from the older Cold War era," he said. While 10 to 20 years ago the move would have been more dramatic, Zelizer said, "now it's kind of cleaning up old policies...I don't think in the end it will bring him the kind of either political reward or satisfaction that some of the other issues would."
Confirmations: Many of the president's executive branch and judicial nominees seemed stuck in limbo for months due to Republican opposition. But after Senate Democrats moved to make the confirmation process easier by changing Senate rules, they were able to plow through much of the backlog before Republicans take control of the Senate in January. A Brookings Institution study out this month found that the president's judicial confirmation rate six years into his presidency exceeds that of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at this point in their presidencies.
Control of the Senate: Losing eight seats in the midterm elections also meant the loss of Democratic control of the Senate. For the next two years of his presidency, Mr. Obama will face an all-Republican Congress. He had already had little success at getting legislation through a divided legislature, but Senate Democrats were able to shield him from confronting legislation that came out of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. "To have Republicans do so well - even if it was predictable -has to go down as a big negative," Zelizer said. "When the president's party loses so much power in congress that reflects poorly on him." The president told NPR in an interview recorded last week that he hasn't had to use his veto pen often since he took office, "partly because legislation that I objected to was typically blocked in the Senate even after Republicans took over the House." But he knows that things will be different in the 114th senssion: "Now I suspect there are going to be some times where I've got to pull that pen out. And I'm going to defend gains that we've made in health care; I'm going to defend gains that we've made on environment and clean air and clean water."
Relationship with House and Senate Democrats: His party largely stood by him through the period of weak approval ratings that beset him this year and undoubtedly hurt lawmakers in the midterm elections, but the end-of-year negotiations over a bill to fund the government seemed to bring deep divisions bubbling to the surface. Many Democrats opposed the bill's provisions to weaken regulatory reforms from the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation and to raise the limits on party committee donations. The White House came out in support of the bill, which prompted House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to say that her party was being "blackmailed" to support bad legislation. For a president, Zelizer said, "one measure of success is uniting their party, is keeping all the factions together, and I don't think he's there right now."
Russian intervention in Ukraine: The Russian incursion in eastern Ukraine earlier this year prompted the U.S. to levy several rounds of sanctions targeted at top Russian officials and key industries. The Russian economy has tanked, also hurt by falling gas prices, but the country's economic woes have not yet driven Russian President Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table for a diplomatic solution. If Mr. Obama hoped that leading the U.S. and Europe to shun Russia economically would convince Putin to reverse course, he was unsuccessful. Plus, Zelizer added, "The implosion of Russia is an area of instability and is something he needs to be worried about."
THE MIXED-BAG ISSUES
Obama's domestic agenda: At the start of the year, Mr. Obama pledged to use his pen and his phone to help the American people on issues he felt were important but stalled in Congress. He did sign a number of executive actions this year that raised the minimum wage for federal contractors, sought to reduce the gender pay gap, and, and protect LGBT federal workers. His biggest and most controversial move was to use his executive authority to shield several million immigrants in the country illegally from deportation. Without the cooperation of Congress, the president used his executive power in an aggressive and proactive way, but the scope of those actions is limited, when compared with the legislative power wielded by Congress.
The fight against ISIS: The sudden rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raised questions about Mr. Obama's decision to fully withdraw from the country in 2011 and the amount of pressure the U.S. put on former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to avoid sectarianism. There have been some successes, including the peaceful transfer of power between Maliki and new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and the president's ability to bring together an international coalition that includes several Arab states. What remains to be seen is what impact the coalition will have on ISIS, and whether it can return Iraq to relative stability and avoid becoming too entangled in Syria's civil war.
Ebola: Critics in the public health community have said the administration was too slow to respond to the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, but the U.S. eventually took a leading role in efforts to combat the disease. Now, there has been some success in fighting it in places like Liberia, where infection rates have dropped. The health system was also mostly successful in identifying and treating cases that showed up in the U.S.
Closing Guantanamo Bay: The president pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year on his second day in office. He has still not been able to do that, but the administration has succeeded in transferring many detainees out of the prison this year, including 10 in December alone.
Drawdown of the war in Afghanistan: The U.S. and NATO formally ended their mission in Afghanistan earlier this week, and now will transition to a supporting role with 13,500 soldiers remaining in the country. The president is on his way to fulfilling his pledge to end the war there. It was a rocky year politically, but the U.S. did help facilitate a peaceful transfer of power to new President Ashraf Ghani and he signed the critical agreement that will allow troops to remain in the country to assist Afghan security forces. But with Taliban attacks on the rise this year, Afghanistan's future and the success of U.S. efforts there remain uncertain.