President Obama came into office promising to be the opposite of George W. Bush, but he is imitating his predecessor in one regard — his second-term slide in popularity is almost a mirror image of the Republican’s declining fortunes in 2005.
Mr. Obama’s job-approval ratings in most polls this month were 40 percent or lower, down from 54 percent at the start of the year and the lowest of his presidency. Mr. Bush’s popularity in December 2005 stood at 43 percent, down from a high of 57 percent near the beginning of his second term and less than half the 90 percent-plus approval ratings in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Only Watergate-plagued Richard Nixon had a worse rating than Mr. Obama at the same point of his presidency, in 1973. Although presidents tend to lose some public approval after winning second terms, Mr. Obama’s numbers slipped more quickly than most others.
“The history of the presidency is like an hourglass with the sand running out,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “There is a little bump up at the start of the fifth year, and then the downward trend continues. The problem here is that Obama had such a terrible fifth year. He blew that one opportunity he had to put some things together.”
Almost from the moment of his reelection, Mr. Obama was sidetracked by scandals including the Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups and revelations of widespread spying by the National Security Agency.
In October came the hapless launch of the Obamacare website and the public’s realization that Mr. Obama didn’t tell the truth when he assured consumers that they could keep their health insurance policies if that’s what they preferred. The president’s broken promise damaged his credibility and was chosen by an independent fact-checking group as the biggest political lie of 2013.
Asked about his plummeting numbers at a Dec. 20 news conference, Mr. Obama took refuge in the answer of all elected officials whose ratings are down: He is not worried about polls.
“I have now been in office five years, close to five years, was running for president for two years before that, and we have had ups and we have had downs,” Mr. Obama said. “I took this job to deliver for the American people, and I knew and will continue to know that there are going to be ups and downs on it.”
Mr. Obama doesn’t have to face the ballot again, but many Democrats are openly worried that his low popularity numbers could drag down the party in the November midterm elections and could hand control of both houses of Congress to Republicans.
A CNN/ORC poll released Dec. 20 found that Mr. Obama’s approval rating had dropped to 41 percent, matching an all-time low in the survey. CNN polling director Keating Holland said the president had lost significant support among women and young people, two voting blocs largely responsible for his 2012 re-election victory over Republican Mitt Romney.
The CNN poll found that the rise in disapproval of the president came equally from the right and the left of the political spectrum.
Mr. Bush said upon his re-election in 2004 that he intended to spend the political capital he had earned. But with the troubled war in Iraq and a failed push to partially privatize Social Security, he lost popularity rapidly and never regained it.
Mr. Obama hopes to change his fortunes with a shake-up of senior White House staff, including the hiring of former Bill Clinton aide John Podesta, but Mr. Hess said the moves are unlikely to reverse the downward trend.
“There’s always some ‘savior of the week’ that comes in from the outside,” Mr. Hess said. “It doesn’t usually work that way and there’s no reason to think it will in this case. You face the midterm election, which presidents always lose some seats.”