President Barack Obama began 2013 fresh from his re-election victory with a call for an expanded role for government and a to-do list that started with taking on the gun lobby.
He ends the year with the National Rifle Association triumphant over him on gun control, the botched rollout of his health-care plan raising alarm about government competence, and his poll numbers down to levels comparable to George W. Bush. A new fight over raising the nation’s debt limit is weeks away.
“It was a terrible year,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s second term is doomed with three years left. “It can be rescued. There are good reasons to believe he will end his presidency in better shape than today.”
The economy is strengthening. Enrollments in the Affordable Care Act’s health-insurance program picked up after the federal website was fixed. And after holding firm against congressional Republicans during the 16-day government shutdown in October, he won a two-year budget deal this month.
Obama parried a question on whether this has been the “worst year” of his presidency at a White House news conference on Dec. 20 with a show of stoicism.
“This room has probably recorded at least 15 near-death experiences” over the course of his campaigns and presidency, he responded.
Highest among the reasons for optimism in the Obama camp is the economy.
The gross domestic product grew at a 4.1 percent annualized rate in the third quarter, its fastest pace in almost two years, the Commerce Department said on Dec. 20. The jobless rate fell to 7 percent in November, the lowest in five years. The Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index has soared more than 27 percent this year, on track for its best annual performance since 1997 during the dot-com boom.
“As Bill Clinton learned,” Zelizer said, an improving economy “can really carry your presidency forward.”
The International Monetary Fund is raising its outlook for the U.S. economy, as the budget accord and a decision by the Federal Reserve to taper its bond buying ease doubts about the future, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said.
“We see a lot more certainty for 2014,” Lagarde said in an interview broadcast yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” She didn’t specify any new figures in the interview.
In the year ahead, Democrats are pushing for progress on revamping immigration policy and dealing with climate change.
In his news conference, Obama cited “indications” that House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, would “try to move forward legislation early next year.” Immigration activists are pressing Obama to use his executive authority to meet their aims if Congress doesn’t act. Obama also has said he’ll address climate change through executive actions, including rules that would require power plants to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The president talked up the possibility that things will improve, declaring at the press conference that “2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.”
This year certainly wasn’t for him.
Obama was returned to office with the largest share of votes cast in a re-election bid since Ronald Reagan in 1984, even with an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent -- the highest for any president’s re-election since monthly records have been kept.
He forced Republicans to capitulate to a tax increase on the wealthy as the New Year rang in. He used his second-term inaugural address to ask for a reversal of decades of public skepticism of big government in favor of an assertive role in promoting a “never-ending journey” toward equality for all.
“It looked about as close to a mandate as a president can get heading into a second term in a down economy,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, recalled at a Bloomberg Government breakfast last week. “The numbers were stunning, when you look at the historical reality of what a president with those kind of unemployment numbers typically faces.”
“No doubt about it. I would say this is the worst year of the presidency,” said Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary, yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Obama’s agenda ran into trouble immediately. Gun-control legislation he proposed after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, foundered. The administration’s attempts to win agreement from Republicans to stave off automatic budget cuts before they took effect March 1 failed. Then their impact was largely shrugged off by the public, even after his warnings about how they would hurt the economy.
A new immigration law -- which Obama on Friday called “probably the biggest thing that I wanted to get done this year” -- stalled in the Republican-controlled House.
Disclosures by Edward Snowden of National Security Agency bulk surveillance of phone records and Internet communication provoked criticism from civil libertarians and foreign allies.
Obama shared in the public blame for the government shutdown, and troubles with the federal healthcare.gov website dominated news coverage of the health law for the first two months after its Oct. 1 start.
By the week ended Dec. 15, Obama’s 42 percent job approval in the Gallup Poll was down 10 percentage points from the same week a year earlier and akin to the 41 percent figure at this point in the administration of Bush, who left office one of the most unpopular presidents in recent history.
The president’s credibility also suffered when millions of people were notified that their health-care policies were being canceled because they didn’t meet new standards. Obama had promised that wouldn’t happen. In a CNN/ORC poll taken Nov. 18-20, 46 percent of Americans said they considered him “honest and trustworthy,” down from 51 percent two months earlier.
Much of the falloff in support for Obama has been among political independents, many of whom appear to be deserting him because they don’t see tangible accomplishments, said Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center in Washington.
Independents’ job approval for Obama dropped to 36 percent in a Dec. 5-8 Pew poll, from 53 percent a year ago. Only 35 percent agreed that Obama is “able to get things done” in the December poll compared with 51 percent who said so in a January Pew poll.
Another explanation for Obama’s decline has been his loss of support among Hispanics, a core component of his electoral coalition, as hopes faded for a new immigration law.
Obama’s job approval among Hispanics plummeted to 48 percent in the Gallup Poll for the week ended Dec. 15 compared with 70 percent a year ago.
Public perception of the health-care law is more encouraging for the White House, Dimock said. The website failures at the start haven’t done lasting damage to views of Obamacare and opinions may improve once people begin coverage, he said.
The portion of the public who said the impact of the law in coming years would be “mostly positive” rose to 39 percent in December from 35 percent in September, the Pew poll showed.
More than 1 million people have enrolled in private health insurance through government health exchanges, with more than half signing up in the first three weeks of this month, Obama said at his news conference.
While Obama’s job approval remains low by the standards of his presidency, it has been edging up since early November, when he was burdened by the defective health-care website.
His 42 percent job approval in the weekly Gallup Poll ending Dec. 15 is up from a low of 40 percent for the week ended Nov. 24. That matched an all-time low for the Obama presidency set during several weeks in August and September 2011 immediately after that year’s debt-limit fight brought the nation to the brink of default.
“There’s no way to know whether it’s the beginning of a recovery in public approval or a short-term blip,” Dimock said. “But public views of the health-care law and the economy will probably determine that.”