If a cartoon balloon had floated atop President Obama’s head during his year-end news conference on Friday it would have said, succinctly: “Good riddance, 2013. Here’s hoping for a better 2014.”
The president 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 healthcare 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 healthcare plan which 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.
He joked that the assembled reporters had previously recorded “at least 15 near-death experiences” of his, and added that over the course of seven years seeking and holding the presidency, “we have had ups and we have had downs.”
Only after prodding did he note that, yes, the healthcare 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 healthcare 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.”
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% 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%, 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% said it was because he was too liberal, up 6 points from January. But 12% 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.
Yet recovery could be difficult. The damage to Obama occurred because the healthcare 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 healthcare 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 Times’ Mark Z. 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 on 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.
“Because Congress didn't act, more than 1 million of their constituents will lose a vital economic lifeline at Christmastime, leaving a lot of job seekers without any source of income at all,” he said. “I think we're a better country than that. We don't abandon each other when times are tough.”
Obama left behind Washington and his miserable year on 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.”