President Obama in an interview with Zach Galifianakis for “Between Two Ferns” in the White House, Feb. 24, 2014.

Breaking Down the “Worst” Year in Washington

Let me start with a controversial premise: 2014 was a year of great progress for President Obama and the progressive agenda.

Stay with me — even if you’re distracted by the sound of heads exploding across the Beltway punditocracy. You can practically hear professional pundits saying “Wait, what? How can this be when it runs completely contrary to my narrative? The President’s party had a terrible midterm election and his poll numbers are only a few points better than they were this time last year when HealthCare.gov was 404 File Not Found.”

That’s true, and we will feel the ramifications of the midterm results for years to come as we do battle with a Republican Senate and a more conservative Republican House. But it’s not the only measure of progress.

The President ran for this office — and we all come to work every day — to improve the lives of average Americans and to make this country a better place to live now and in the future. And when you take off narrow political lenses, this was the President’s most successful year since the Republicans took over the House in 2010.

One year ago this week, the President declared at his annual year-end press conference that 2014 would be a “breakthrough year for America.” Here are five reasons why he was right:

The Economy

2014 has been the strongest year of job growth since the 1990s. Through November, we’ve added 2.65 million new jobs (an average of 241,000 per month), and the boost has largely been in higher-paying industries and full-time jobs. This dynamic is on prominent display in the manufacturing industry, where growth this year averaged 15,000 jobs per month (more than twice last year’s rate) and the average workweek hit 42.2 hours several times this year (the highest level since WWII). The growth in full time jobs has been joined by rising wages for the middle class, which are up 2.3 percent over last year. The President could do even more to promote these trends if Congress would go along. But in the meantime, there’s plenty he can do on his own. And he did — following his call in the State of the Union for a national movement to raise the minimum wage, 17 states and a growing number of businesses have taken steps to raise wages for about seven million people.

314,000 Private sector Jobs Were Added in November

Health Care

A year ago at this time, politicians and the press predicted the demise of the Affordable Care Act. To some, it seemed like the only question was whether it would be repealed, or get crushed under its own weight and devolve into a death spiral. A year later, about 10 million Americans have gained coverage. The nation’s uninsured rate is nearing the lowest level on record. The price of health care is rising at the slowest rate in nearly 50 years. And the website works pretty great. The bottom line is, Obamacare is working. It’s saving lives. And it’s helping millions of Americans lead healthier ones without the crushing fear of going broke just because you get sick. Need more proof? We just finished a debate on how funding the government for next year and the Republicans didn’t even have the heart to suggest repealing it. There’s a first time for everything.

America’s uninsured rate dropped to near historic lows in 2014

Climate & the Environment

In 2014, the President made historic progress on the central global challenge of the next century — climate change and environmental protection. His biggest move came in June when he followed through on his pledge to curb emissions from existing power plants, the single biggest source of carbon pollution in the United States. This policy stands apart as the single most important step to date by the United States to confront the urgent threat of a changing climate, helping to put us on track to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025.

Earlier this week, the President took action to withdraw Bristol Bay from consideration for offshore oil and gas exploration, the latest in a series of aggressive steps to protect land and water for future generations. In all, President Obama has preserved or protected more than 260 million acres of public lands, making him the most prolific conservationist since Teddy Roosevelt. He has also taken forceful steps to make American communities more resilient to climate change and extreme weather — a critical issue for our public health, national security, and economic competitiveness.

The President did even more to restore America to a position of global leadership on climate change when he forged a historic emissions deal with China last month. Cooperation between the world’s top two polluters represents the most significant advance in almost two decades in the global effort to reduce carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere, and save the world for our kids.

Immigration

President Obama’s executive action to fix our immigration system is the most meaningful effort in decades to make the system fairer, more transparent, and more predictable. It’s no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, to be sure. Yet, the President’s actions represent a critical step toward securing the border and bringing up to five million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. It is a decision with legal, economic, and moral justifications, and its implementation over the next few years will be a boon to this country for decades.

The Courts

Before adjourning this week, the Senate confirmed the 307th federal judge nominated by President Obama. In his six years in office, the President has reshaped the federal judiciary to include more women, minorities, gays, and lesbians, so it might resemble more closely the nation it serves. These lifetime appointees include two Supreme Court Justices, 53 circuit court judges, 250 district court judges, and two Court of International Trade judges. Among the 13 appeals courts, the highest authority on many legal and regulatory matters, Democratic appointees now hold majorities on nine. This is a complete reversal of the state of affairs when the President took office. The President and Democrats in the Senate took firm steps to secure those appointments, knowing that many of those judges will be around decades after this administration ends. In the past two years alone, the Senate has confirmed 134 judges, more than in any congressional term since 1978–1980.

In many ways, 2014 was a messy, gloomy year defined by breathless, two-week news cycles focused on all that is scary in the world. Putin in Ukraine, terrorists in Syria, an Ebola epidemic that never hit here, the Malaysian airliners, just to name a few examples. At home, the big story was often historic Congressional dysfunction.

But that’s not the full picture. Through it all, President Obama advanced big pieces of the agenda he was elected to carry out in 2008 and in 2012.

And years from now, people will look back on 2014 as one the most significant and successful years of this historic and tremendously consequential Presidency. It turns out you can get a lot done with a pen and a phone.