President Barack Obama greets well-wishers outside at Kailua Beach Center on Dec. 31, 2013, in Honolulu.
Kent Nishimura-Pool/Getty Images

Unless you opted for your own news blackout during the holiday season, by now you’ve probably read one of the many year-end recaps that described 2013 as President Barack Obama’s worst year. If not, just read here, here, here, here and here.

Reviews were bad, with even Chris Matthews—of “thrill going up my leg when Obama speaks” fame—lamenting that last year “feels like the seventh or eighth year of a presidency,” not the fifth.

The overall gist, of course, is that between Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks, the administration’s clumsy messaging on Syria, Congress’ inability to enact background-check legislation and the lousy rollout of Obamacare—including PolitiFact’s naming “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it” as its lie of the year—the president heads into 2014 digging himself out of a hole.

Indeed, the last 12 months were far from stellar.

The president and his key surrogates have failed to capitalize on an improving economic picture, with their seeming inability to proactively communicate to the American electorate where they’re trying to take it from day to day and year to year. And as my The Root colleague Keli Goff explains, he’s still battling persistently high unemployment, particularly among African Americans.

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But the first year of his second term wasn’t quite as bad as everyone says. Background-check legislation didn’t happen, but that wasn’t on Obama’s agenda until the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn. Immigration reform only got through the Senate, but it’s not completely dead in the House. His approval numbers took a hit, but in last week's Gallup poll, they made a modest five-point rebound.

He deserves criticism, sure, but also some credit. Here are five good moves he made last year:

Syria

It wasn’t pretty watching Obama send Secretary of State John Kerry out to make a full-throated case for military action in Syria, only to pull back days later and call for Congress to weigh in—we’re used to seeing commanders in chief go to war without reservation. But you could argue that one of the main reasons Obama was elected in the first place was that Americans wanted a president who was willing to pull back from the brink if that was what circumstances called for.

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The Government Shutdown

There’ll be more fights ahead between the White House and Congress, but the president scored a win (later squandered) when he forced House Republicans to blink first in the standoff that led to the government shutdown, and got—temporarily, at least—Washington’s political fever to break. When the dust settled, the path cleared for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)—budget chairs in their respective legislative chambers—to come to terms on a deal.

Janet Yellen

The same president who tripled the number of women on the Supreme Court went on to nominate respected economist and current Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen as the Fed’s first female chair, and she's expected to be confirmed by the Senate this month.

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Civil Rights

He hasn’t really done much that’s new on gay civil rights, but over the course of his tenure repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and Obama's public support of same-sex marriage helped make the high court’s decisions to strike down provisions of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and not to reinstate California’s Proposition 8 seem inevitable.

Obamacare (Seriously)

And, OK, for now, keep Obamacare in the fail column. For reasons that can’t adequately be explained, team Obama—including Sec. Kathleen Sebelius and the president himself—kept their eye off the ball for four years while overpaid contractors botched a rollout that The Root’s development team could have handled in their sleep with one hand tied behind their keyboards.

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Policywise, the Affordable Care Act works—and premiums come down—only if enough healthy enrollees sign up to offset the cost of covering those who already need care. That hasn’t happened yet, and we won’t know if it does for a year. 

Without cost savings to individuals, or a bending of the infamous “cost curve,” the law is a loser. 

On the politics, though, Obama is playing a longer game. As of this week, more than 6 million people have signed up for Medicaid or for coverage on the ACA exchanges—nowhere near the planned enrollment goals, but not the fiasco of two months ago. To the degree that he’s failing, he’s doing it while trying to bring health care to the uninsured. In time, politically, that might wind up being a win.

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David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.