President Barack Obama certainly noted some of the more positive developments in 2013: millions of jobs created, the economy growing more strongly, the unemployment rate at its lowest in five years.
The deficit is down, energy production is up and health care cost increases have slowed.
But he and everyone else knew that he was punching up from the depths of a hole he has dug for himself, largely because of the mangled introduction of his health care plan that has caused confidence and trust in him to crater.
Several of the questions staggered around a common theme: How bad was this year? How bad do you feel about that? Obama, never the most publicly reflective of presidents — a group which, on the whole, is rarely publicly reflective — wouldn’t really go there.
Only after prodding did he note that, yes, the health care introduction did damage — “a source of great frustration” both to Americans and to him. On the other hand, he noted, “Since that time I now have a couple million people, maybe more, who are going to have health care on Jan. 1. And that is a big deal.
“That’s why I ran for this office,” he said. “And as long as I’ve got an opportunity every single day to make sure that in ways large and small I’m creating greater opportunity for people, more kids are able to go to school, get the education they need, more families are able to stabilize their finances — you know, the housing market is continuing to improve, people feel like their wages maybe are inching up a little bit — if those things are happening, I’ll take it.”
WEATHERING THE STORM
Pollsters would tell him that that’s about all he can take, although there are signs that perhaps the free-fall has abated.
A CNN-ORC International poll released Friday showed that only 41 percent of Americans approved of the way Obama was handling his job, a stark 14 points lower than their approval rate when the year began. The disapproval rating was at 56 percent, up 13 points from January.
The poll offered mild indications that Obama is caught in perhaps the most difficult position from which to extract oneself — getting it from both sides. Among those who disapproved of Obama, 40 percent said it was because he was too liberal, up 6 points from January. But 12 percent said it was because he was not liberal enough, up 5 points from January.
Obama’s support among Democrats dropped 17 points over the year, that being a group where liberal criticisms would arise.
Still, Obama’s job approval and disapproval ratings were precisely the same in November as December — meaning that, on the upside, he had weathered the worst pounding of his presidency without dropping any more. Expect his supporters’ line to be: He’s bottomed out and headed back up.
RECOVERY COULD BE DIFFICULT
The damage to Obama occurred because the health care program bled from being a policy issue — which Americans have strong views on, pro and con — to a matter of character and trust in which people across the spectrum found him lacking.
Those who have studied the decline said Obama will only regain his standing if the health care program improves markedly. Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster and longtime student of politics and presidents, called it Obama’s top priority.
“If it fails to do that,” Hart told the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Barabak, “he leaves himself in the position of Jimmy Carter. Good idea, failed execution.”
The hope that the execution is improving was one reason for Obama’s repeated optimism Friday about next year.
“I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America,” he said.
But partisan wrangles loom as soon as late winter, when a new debt ceiling limit is due to be reached. And even in the optimistic tenor of his remarks, Obama telegraphed a clear lack of confidence that the bipartisanship that led to the recent budget deal would stick around for the long haul.
“It’s probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship, but it’s also fair to say that we’re not condemned to endless gridlock. There are areas where we can work together,” he said. Then he immediately began bashing Republicans for failing to re-up unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless.
Obama left behind Washington and his miserable year Friday to head to his birthplace of Hawaii, for holiday rest, recuperation, and, he suggested, some reflection over how things went so wrong.
“The end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see what can you do better next year. That’s how I intend to approach it,” he said. “I am sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun.”