Last-chance saloon: Last year was the nadir of Obama’s presidency. In 2014, he needs more than economic growth to salvage his legacy

The President is not yet a lame duck

Welcome back, Mr President. But it is unlikely Barack Obama feels that way this morning, having exchanged the warmth of Hawaii for the political new year in an icy and increasingly hostile Washington. By any measure, 2013 was the nadir of his presidency. It is possible, though by no means predetermined, that 2014 could be as bad, or worse.

At the start of last year, all seemed set reasonably fair. Mr Obama’s political stock had been reinvigorated by a convincing election victory, and there were cautious hopes that chastened Republicans – who retained control of the House of Representatives – might be prepared to work more productively with him. Instead, partisanship plumbed new depths, while the President made matters worse with a series of stumbles, most notably the shambolic launch of the Obamacare health reforms.

Largely as a result, the President’s approval rating has tumbled to 40 per cent; not as dismal a level as post-Katrina George W Bush, but far behind both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton at a similar point. Mr Obama is not yet a lame duck. That unwanted status threatens only after November’s mid-term elections, especially if Democrats lose control of the Senate. But already he is perilously close.

All is not yet lost, however. After its disastrous debut in October, the Obamacare website now works reasonably well, and more Americans are signing up for coverage on the new health exchanges. Moreover, new benefits have kicked in that also might gradually win over a still largely hostile public. If so, then the President’s political prospects could be transformed.

A second reason for the White House to believe that 2014 can only be better than 2013 is the improving US economy. Recent unemployment and growth statistics suggest that a recovery hitherto mainly visible only in soaring stock prices on Wall Street is becoming self-sustaining, and that Main Street is finally feeling the benefits, too. A rising economic tide will lift all boats, including Mr Obama’s.

Even on Capitol Hill, there are faint glimmers of bipartisan momentum. The modest budget deal passed before Christmas raises hopes that yet another damaging confrontation over the debt ceiling can be avoided next month. Similarly, Republicans are making slightly more encouraging noises about immigration reform, the passage of which would much enhance the Obama legacy. At the same time, Speaker John Boehner is showing an overdue willingness to face down the Tea Party zealots in his own ranks who have made virtually all compromise impossible. Lastly, it is conceivable, albeit distinctly unlikely, that the Democrats recapture control of the House.

Much depends on Mr Obama himself. Perhaps even the most accomplished horse-traders like Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton would not have achieved much in Washington’s current poisonous climate. But this President has a manifest contempt for Congress; indeed he gives little sign of enjoying the rough and tumble of politics at all. Even the Democratic faithful who once adored him have wearied of rhetoric without results. The best way Mr Obama can restore his fortunes is to roll up his sleeves and enter the fray. Welcome back, Mr President.