Barack Obama is finishing out the worst year of his presidency, so it's no wonder that he's eager to move into 2014 as quickly as possible.
This much was clear in his final news conference of the year last Friday. He seemed weary, frustrated, and impatient with repeated questions about why he has sunk so low in public esteem as compared with a year ago when he scored a solid re-election victory over divided and bewildered Republicans. The answer isn't complicated; 2013 was a year in which public trust – a precious commodity to any president – began to erode for Obama in a big way, and a credibility gap began to widen.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff says there has been a very damaging loss of confidence in Obama's leadership.
"It's corrosive," McInturff told me. "....He is fundamentally being perceived through a different filter today. He is being seen as a lot like a typical politician."
The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which McInturff helped to conduct, finds that only 37 percent of Americans consider Obama "honest and straightforward," and only 43 percent approve of his job performance, while 54 percent disapprove, which represents a serious decline in his popularity during the past year.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says, "The very serious problem with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act is a truly significant event and has taken a toll on the president's standing with the public. No question, there is real repair work that has to be done." Garin argues that, "the president can regain the ground that he's lost in the past few months" but he needs to "be pro-active" in rebuilding trust. "The president needs to demonstrate that this was a teachable moment for him...If he does that, the American people will appreciate it," Garin says.
Obama moved in that direction at his news conference last week when he was asked what went wrong with the rollout of the Obamacare website. "We screwed it up," he said in offering a blunt mea culpa.
The reasons for Obama's slide are different from the ways other presidents have lost their credibility. Obama's fall from grace wasn't due to a lust for power or paranoia about being undermined by enemies, as with Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal, or disengagement by the chief executive combined with excessive zealotry by aides, as with Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra scandal, or a character flaw, as with Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal.
Instead, Obama's problem is due in part to incompetence in administering his signature health care law and his own hubris and sloppiness in over-promising what the law would do.
Causing deep damage to his credibility, political strategists of both parties say, was his insistence that Americans could keep their existing insurance plans if they wished, which proved to be untrue. His words were, "If you have insurance that you like, then you will be able to keep that insurance. If you've got doctor that you like, you will be able to keep your doctor." Neither proved to be true for millions of Americans, and now the country is holding Obama accountable for his misstatements.
Also damaging to his reputation for competence was the rollout of HealthCare.gov, the health care law's website. It was a disaster, with many Americans unable to enroll or get information about what to do next. The website has been improved, but it still has many problems.
Underlying all this is a pervasive anxiety about the economy, unemployment, stagnant incomes and the direction of the country. More than six in 10 Americans tell pollsters that the nation is on the wrong track and many have lost their optimism about the future. Whether it's fair or not, many Americans blame Obama as the person in charge.
To shore up his administration, Obama has named several new advisers, led by John Podesta as White House counselor. Podesta was White House Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton and is a bona fide Washington insider. But critics say Podesta was too partisan when he was Clinton's top aide, and they see the need for new blood. Yet the Podesta choice is part of a pattern. Some of Obama's most important recent appointments were actually people who have already served in his administration with different titles. They include former chief legislative lobbyist Phil Schiliro, who will now focus on implementing Obama's health care law. Another key appointment was to name former acting budget director Jeffrey Zients, a wealthy businessman who is currently in charge of improving the administration's troubled health care website, to be director of the National Economic Council starting in February.