Washington: US President Barack Obama began the year 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 2013 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 government’s debt limit is only 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. Enrolment in the health-insurance programme 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 concessions in 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 20 December 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.

Strengthening growth

Highest among the reasons for optimism in the Obama camp is the economy.

The gross domestic product grew at a 4.1% annualized rate in the third quarter, its fastest pace in almost two years, the commerce department said on 20 December. The jobless rate fell to 7% in November, the lowest in five years. The Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index has soared more than 27% 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."

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.

‘Breakthrough year’

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%—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 scepticism of big government in favour 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."

Immediate trouble

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 on 1 March 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.

Sharing blame

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 1 October start.

By the week ended 15 December, Obama’s 42% job approval in the Gallup Poll was down 10 percentage points from the same week a year earlier and akin to the 41% figure at this point in the administration of Bush, who left office one of the most unpopular presidents in recent history.

Much of the fall-off 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% in a 5-8 December Pew poll, from 53% a year ago. Only 35% agreed that Obama is able to get things done in the December poll compared with 51% who said so in a January Pew poll.

Hispanic voters

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% in the Gallup Poll for the week ended 15 December compared with 70% 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% in December from 35% 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% job approval in the weekly Gallup Poll ending 15 December is up from a low of 40% for the week ended 24 November. 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." BLOOMBERG