2013: Rich got richer, poor got poorer and Congress did nothing

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — Takeaways from 2013: The rich got richer, the poor got poorer; gays got married. The NSA knows everything; Obamacare needs critical care; Washington failed to get much done; and Congress rates lower than cockroaches.

2013's biggest winner: Gay rights

In June the Supreme Court threw out a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and upheld the court decision that overturned California's anti-same-sex marriage Proposition 8. With New Mexico squeaking in this year after its Supreme Court OK'd same-sex marriage in the state on Thursday, the total number of states recognizing same-sex marriage now stands at 16, along with the District of Columbia. It'll be 17 when it becomes legal in Illinois in June.

Change could come more slowly in red states, but they might not have a choice. A federal judge overturned the same-sex marriage ban in Utah on Friday.

The Supreme Court, clearly, is going to have to weigh in again. Public acceptance of gay rights and same-sex marriage has picked up at a remarkable clip. It's hard to believe that just two years ago, the Democratic president didn't support same-sex marriage. Now it seems like a fait accompli that gays will have equal rights nationwide.

The NSA knows everything

Over the summer and fall it became clear that while the National Security Agency doesn't necessarily listen to Americans' phone calls or read their e-mails, it has access to all of that data and more. Much more. Just about everything you (and foreign world leaders) do online or with a phone.

Edward Snowden, a former IT guy for NSA, turned the American intelligence community on its head when he disclosed thousands of documents about the massive data dragnet conducted in secret by America's techno spies in the years following 9/11. Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then Russia. Lawmakers and the public felt misled by the spy agency about the breadth of its activities. President Barack Obama defended the programs but launched a review and has promised intelligence reforms next year.

Uppers and downers

The year began with an emboldened Obama, re-elected to a second term and with Republicans in retreat. It ends with questions about his competence, after the disastrous rollout of the insurance exchanges for his signature health law, and questions about his candor, after Snowden's NSA leaks made clear the government was up to far more than it was letting on.

Obamacare gets sick

Open enrollment for Obama's signature achievement — the health reform law intended to bring coverage to uninsured Americans -- began October 1. And it was a disaster.

The HealthCare.gov website didn't work, so people couldn't sign up for the health insurance they're going to be legally required to have on March 31. As contractors scrambled to fix the site, scrutiny of the complicated law multiplied and it turned out many Americans didn't understand it.

Obama's promise that Americans who liked their insurance plans could keep them turned out not to be true for many people who bought their coverage outside of work or government programs like Medicare. The debate was a bruising one for Democrats, and the President saw his approval rating plunge to a record low by the end of the year.

The fight for the GOP and for immigration reform

The year began with hopes for a bipartisan and comprehensive immigration reform bill that would include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Negotiators found common ground in the Senate and even passed a bill that got support from both Democrats and Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Their plan was in part a response to Mitt Romney's loss in 2012. Romney had staked out a very conservative position on the immigration issue and got very little support from Latinos, a key, fast-growing demographic group.

But immigration reform ran into a brick wall in the House of Representatives. The sweeping piece of bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate is shelved. If anything gets done next year, it'll be in pieces. And Rubio, who staked his political future at the beginning of the year on boldly leading the way to immigration reform, saw his rising star fade as conservatives in his party rejected his immigration push.

Doing nothing leads to government shutdown

In the history books, 2013 could be remembered as the year of the "do-nothing" Congress. The Republican House and the Democratic Senate couldn't agree on anything -- not even funding the government or raising the debt ceiling.

Intransigence led to a 16-day partial shutdown of government services for the first half of October. The shutdown coincided with the rollout of the Obamacare website and a debate over raising the U.S. debt ceiling. The three issues swirled together to create a maelstrom of political malcontent. Government dysfunction passed the economy as Americans' top concern in Gallup's polling.

Debt limit — the trillion-dollar year

The nation's deficit shrank in 2013, but the country is still projected to spend more than it takes in for the foreseeable future. The national debt grew from $16,432,705,914,255.48 on January 1 to $17,268,587,651,056.23 by mid-December. Congress is likely to have to approve another debt ceiling increase early next spring.

For richer...

The year began on a sour note for the bank accounts of wealthy Americans. Delivering on a campaign promise, Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill extended Bush-era tax cuts for all but the wealthiest Americans. But anyone with money in the stock market had to be happy.

... and poorer...

Income inequality became one of the top political issues in 2013. The gap between the wealthy and the poor grew. But temporary extensions of unemployment insurance and food stamp increases expired as the year ended, placing new strain on those left behind by the recovery.

... and out of the Great Recession: The economy itself improved dramatically. The unemployment rate fell from 7.9 percent in January to 7 percent in November. The Dow Jones Industrial Average broke 16,000 for the first time on November 21. It hovered near that level afterward, closing Friday at a record 16,221.14.

The new diplomacy in Iran and Syria

The U.S. is negotiating seriously with Iran for the first time since the 1970s. That was the result of years of quiet back-channel efforts.

But we're a long way from a compromise solution that would address American and world concerns about Iran's potential pursuit of a nuclear weapon and its desire for nuclear energy. Lawmakers from both parties want new sanctions that could torpedo current talks.

Less controlled but potentially more successful was the effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons. First Obama was going to unilaterally launch missile strikes. Then he was going to consult Congress and get its approval. But just when it looked as though he would be rebuffed on the Hill, Secretary of State John Kerry made an offhand comment at a press conference about what Syria could do to avoid attacks — turn over all of its chemical weapons now, he said. To everyone's surprise, Syria's ally Russia brokered a deal to accomplish just that.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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Z. Byron Wolf


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