Obama’s Five Biggest Blunders of 2013
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The Fiscal Times
December 19, 2013

President Obama began 2013 at the top of his game with a second inaugural address boasting of America’s “exceptionalism” and limitless possibilities. But as the year winds to a close, the president is saddled with his lowest approval rating since first taking office and the country seems baffled by his erratic performance. 

While the approval ratings of both parties in Congress remain far worse than the president’s, Obama has suffered the most damage from a relentless series of missteps, blunders and self-inflicted wounds, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. 

Related: Obama’s Dismal Approval Ratings Take Another Dive

A year ago, 54 percent of Americans surveyed said they approved of the president’s performance while 42 percent said they disapproved. Today, those attitudes have been reversed, and a full 55 percent say they disapprove of the way Obama is handling his job and only 43 percent approve of his performance. 

On the critical question of who Americans trusts more to handle the economy, respondents favored Obama over Republicans, 54 percent to 36 percent a year ago. Now they say they trust the GOP more than the president, 45 percent to 41 percent.

The year was bracketed by the near catastrophic events of the fiscal cliff in early January and a government shutdown and budget crisis in late October that left the public shaken and dismayed by relentless partisan gridlock and government dysfunction. 

In between, the president demonstrated indecision and weakness in responding to the Syrian crisis; he was hammered by Republicans over an Internal Revenue Service scandal; and the GOP is still demanding an investigation of the November 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

Finally, there's the disastrous on-line rollout of Obamacare.

The Obamacare fiasco arguably was the worst setback for the president during his five years in office. Even if all the problems are ultimately corrected and millions of uninsured Americans finally enroll for coverage, the troubled rollout set a new standard for government incompetence reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s tragically botched response to Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.  

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of the Senate GOP leadership, said this week that the troubled launch of Obamacare was central to the president’s declining popularity – and few other Republicans or Democrats would disagree with this assessment.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for Progressive Policy and strong supporter of Obama, agreed that the legion of technical problems with HealthCare.org “had a huge impact” on the president’s standing.

“People who didn’t always agree with him thought he was competent,” Lilly told The Fiscal Times. “This chipped away at this perception in a pretty serious way.”

Related: The Obamacare Delays Just Keep on Coming

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) noted that presidents traditionally encounter major controversy or a “rocky road” in their second term and that the Obamacare mess-up has distracted attention from a considerable amount of good news – including a record surge in the stock market and an improving unemployment and economic growth picture.

"But until we actually get the [Obamacare] boat ashore and people start enjoying the benefits of that bill, I think the president’s numbers are going to continue to suffer some.”

Here are five of the biggest presidential blunders of 2013 that have contributed to Obama’s sinking approval rating:

  • The Internal Revenue Scandal. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration released an audit in May confirming that the IRS used inappropriate criteria to identify potential political cases, including tax-exempt organizations with Tea Party in their names. The White House was slow to fully grasp the political consequences of the revelation, even as Republican and Democratic lawmakers called for a full investigation. On June 24, 2013, newly-installed IRS commissioner Danny Werfel revealed that an internal investigation had discovered that the targeting was both broader and had gone on longer than previously known.   

Related: Why the IRS Scandal Could Bring Down Obamacare

  • The Benghazi controversy.  The President and his top advisers repeatedly stumbled in their inept efforts to contain the controversy surrounding the tragic assault on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012 that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.  In May, investigators for the House Committee on Oversight and Reform found two State Department officials who were sharply critical of the administration’s response to the attack and argued that there could have been a far more aggressive military response.  
  • Waffling on Syria -- Back in August, 2012, Obama told reporters that he and other leaders have been “very clear” to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” by the Syrian government.
    But on Sept. 4 of this year, Obama declared in a speech in Stockholm that the confrontation with Syria over chemical weapons was not a personal test for him but for Congress, the United States and the world as he worked to strengthen support for a military strike.  “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference, adding, “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”
  • The disastrous Oct. 1 rollout of Obamacare. Arguably the worst blunder of the Obama administration was the decision to launch the Affordable Care Act’s federal and state-operated on-line insurance markets before hundreds of technical problems had been worked out.  The president insisted he never would have allowed the rollout to proceed if he had known how bad the problems were....However, congressional testimony confirmed that the White House was informed of the problems as early as last March

Related: The President’s Non-Apology Apology on Obamacare

  • A false promise to Americans. The president’s misleading promise that Americans who liked their existing health insurance could hang onto it was even more damaging to Obama’s credibility. Despite repeated assurances to that effect, more than 4.2 million Americans have seen their health insurance policies canceled because they did not meet the new, higher standards for services required under the Affordable Care Act.  In early November, Obama apologized to Americans.  And he urged insurance companies to consider reissuing the canceled policies for an additional year – although few insurers or states have complied with that request. Despite those efforts, Obama has the dubious distinction of having his false health care promise named “Lie of the Year” by Politifact.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.