Fearing the political consequences from another terrorist attack -- especially if he had constrained the national security state -- Obama let much of the apparatus roll on and even grow. After a flurry of openness and reform at the start of his presidency in 2009, such as declassifying torture memos and seeking to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, Obama retreated under withering political fire.
Now, thanks to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, the political landscape has shifted against the "surveillance state." Obama himself has suffered serious defections from his political "base" as a result of the disclosures, contributing to his dismal approval ratings.
The altered terrain gives Obama the opportunity, if he chooses to take it, to finally address these residual problems that he inherited from the Bush-43 administration. There seems to be less opposition in Congress now to phasing out Guantanamo and more support for reforming the NSA's spying.
Whether Obama takes advantage of this opening -- created by Snowden and other brave whistleblowers -- will be a test of whether his critics on the Left are correct, that Obama's campaign talk of "change we can believe in" was just empty rhetoric, or whether Obama has felt intimidated by the extraordinary powers of the national security state, as some like ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern have suggested.
The more obvious truth is that the U.S. news media is often wrong in its superficial snapshot judgments of how history will view some year or some event. The real test of whether President Obama had a disastrous year in 2013 will be measured by what happens in 2014 and beyond.