A year that began with President Barack Obama riding high after his re-election victory is ending with him in the biggest hole of his presidency.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that more Americans disapprove of the president's job performance than ever before; half say they’re either disappointed or dissatisfied with his presidency and 54 percent believe he’s facing a long-term setback.
Perhaps more significantly, Obama has seen a drop in key presidential attributes.
Just 28 percent give the president high grades for being able to achieve his goals (down 16 points from January); only 37 percent give him high marks for being honest and straightforward (down 5 points from June); and 44 percent give him high marks for being able to handle a crisis (down another 5 points since June).
“These are tough and sobering numbers for the president and his administration,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
While the past year has presented Obama with several different challenges – the political targeting scandal inside the Internal Revenue Service, the leaking of National Security Agency information, the government shutdown in October – the main culprit for his current woes has been the troubled launch of his signature health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act.
Indeed, for the first time in the poll, a majority now views the health law as a bad idea instead of a good one.“Make no mistake, the president has been weighed down by one issue: his health care law,” Yang adds.
But 2013 hasn’t been a kind year to Congress, either, as a majority of respondents call it “one of the worst” in history — the highest percentage ever to express this view.
Temporary drop or long-term setback?
According to the poll, Obama’s overall job-approval rating stands at 43 percent, up 1 point from the previous NBC/WSJ survey conducted in late October, his lowest showing ever in the poll.
But 54 percent say they disapprove of his job, which is the highest mark in his presidency.
In addition, for the second straight survey, Obama’s favorable/unfavorable score is a net-negative (42 percent positive, 46 percent negative).
And a combined 50 percent say they are either “disappointed” or “dissatisfied” with the president, versus a combined 28 percent who are “proud” or “satisfied.”
Another 22 percent say they’re mixed.
McInturff, the GOP pollster, compares these declining numbers to what happened to George W. Bush after his administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina, explaining that Bush experienced a similar drop in job approval, in his favorable/unfavorable rating and in key presidential attributes.
“We have a long way to go in [Obama’s] presidency,” McInturff says. But he calls Obama’s current poll numbers “a very critical inflection point.”
Democratic pollster Yang counters, however, that the president is facing only one chief hurdle (health care) – like both Ronald Reagan (Iran-Contra) and Bill Clinton (Monica Lewinsky) encountered during their presidencies.
By comparison, Yang adds, both Jimmy Carter (economy, energy shortages, Iran hostage crisis) and George W. Bush (Katrina, Iraq, 2008 financial collapse) faced multiple episodes that weighed down their years in the White House.
“As health care goes, so goes the Obama presidency for next year,” Yang says.
And by that standard, it’s going roughly.
Health law pessimism
Only 34 percent believe the health law is a good idea (down 3 points from late October), while 50 percent say it’s a bad idea (the highest percentage on that measure since the NBC/WSJ poll began asking this question).
Also, by a 51 percent to 43 percent margin, respondents say they are bothered more by the Obama administration’s troubled health care website and some Americans losing their health plans than by the Republican Party’s continued efforts to undermine the law.
And asked which one or two issues have been most important in shaping their views about the president, the top response was the health care law (58 percent) – followed by the economy (25 percent), the government shutdown (23 percent) and the situations in Syria and Iran (16 percent).
McInturff says there are two silver linings for the Obama administration when it comes to health care.
First: Just a quarter of Americans (26 percent) believe the health care law “should be totally eliminated,” which is virtually unchanged from the last NBC/WSJ poll in late October.
And secondly: Fifty-eight percent of respondents say the law hasn’t had much of an impact on them and their families, suggesting that the bad news associated with the health care rollout could be temporary.
“The majority of people are telling us that it’s not affecting them,” McInturff says.
'One of the worst' Congresses ever
While respondents might be down on President Obama and his health care law, many of them are downright disgusted at a Congress labeled the least productive in modern history.
A majority – 51 percent – views the 113th Congress as “one of the worst” Congresses ever in terms of performance and accomplishments, the highest percentage answering that way on this NBC/WSJ poll question dating back to 1990.
By comparison, 28 percent say it’s “below average,” 17 percent call it “average,” just 2 percent say it’s “above average,” and only 1 percent think it’s “one of the best” Congresses.
The Republican Party also fares poorly in the poll when it comes to compassion and compromise.
Respondents give Democrats a 28-point advantage over the GOP (45 percent to 17 percent) when asked which party does a better job showing compassion and concern for people.
They also give Democrats a 12-point edge (31 percent to 19 percent) on which party is more willing to work with the opposition party to pass needed legislation.
But the Democratic Party has narrower advantages on health care (6 points) and immigration (5 points).
And the GOP holds a 10-point advantage on the economy (36 percent to 26 percent), which is its highest edge on the issue since 1994-1995.
Economic optimism grows since the shutdown
The GOP’s economic advantage comes as Americans have become more optimistic about the state of the economy since the government shutdown.
Twenty-nine percent say the economy will improve in the next year, which is up 12 points since early October when the shutdown began and up 6 points since late October.
By contrast, 24 percent in the current survey say the economy will get worse, and 46 percent say it will stay the same.
The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Dec. 4-8 of 1,000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.