WASHINGTON — 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. Enrollments in the health- insurance program 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 Dec. 20 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.
Highest among the reasons for optimism in the Obama camp is the economy.
The gross domestic product grew at a 4.1 percent annualized rate in the third quarter, its fastest pace in almost two years, the Commerce Department said on Dec. 20. The jobless rate fell to 7 percent in November, the lowest in five years. The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index has soared more than 27 percent this year, on track for its best annual performance since 1997 during the dot-com boom.