President Obama ran in 2008 as the polar opposite of President George W. Bush, promising to bring competence and change to Washington.
Five years later, Obama finds himself with poll numbers strikingly similar to those of his predecessor at this point in his presidency, and with real worries that all of the hopes for his second term are over.
The fall of 2005 led to a terrible 2006 for Bush, who saw his party lose majorities in the House and Senate that fall. Democrats worry 2014 could be a tough year for Obama that could conclude with them losing the Senate.
Supporters of Obama acknowledge certain parallels and worry that the latest rash of healthcare headlines will not only tarnish the second term, but the president’s legacy.
“The elements of hope and change just aren’t there,” said one former senior administration official, who worked on the campaign and went on to work in the Obama White House.
At the same time, they insist it’s not over for Obama and that he has time to turn things around.
“I'd much rather be in this situation right now than what Bush faced around the same time of his presidency,” one former senior administration official said.
“Look, the healthcare launch is no doubt the worst rollout of a website in the history of the Internet,” the former senior official said. “But this is fixable.”
“Katrina dealt with loss of life with people in miserable conditions,” the former official added. “This is not that. Not at all.”
One senior administration official disputed the characterization that the White House was in “hair on fire” mode.
“Once this gets fixed, millions of people are going to have healthcare,” one senior administration official said.
“I think that's a little different than thousands of lives being destroyed,” the official said, referring to the 1,833 direct or indirect deaths stemming from Hurricane Katrina, according to the National Hurricane Center.
A Qunnipiac poll out this week found the president with an approval rating of 39 percent — just a point above President Bush's at the same time in his presidency. Approval ratings for Obama and Bush within their respective parties also mirror each other, according to Gallup.
In November 2005 — five year’s into Bush’s presidency — 80 percent of Republicans approved of him. And support with Independents hit 29 percent.
The same amount of Democrats currently approve of Obama, while independents give him a slightly higher rating at 34 percent.
But most troubling for the president may be that a majority of voters — 53 percent — said the administration has not been competent in managing the U.S. government.
Tony Fratto, who served as a deputy press secretary to former president George W. Bush, said in an interview that he doesn't believe it's "particularly useful" to compare presidencies.
But he explained that once poll numbers decline in the second term, “it's really hard to recover.”
“On a question of competency, an in particular for this White House which sold themselves as technically competent, they failed so spectacularly on the president's number one priority,” Fratto said. “That's really hard to recover from. It tends to be lasting and it's very difficult to bounce back. I don't know if there's much the White House can do about it now.”
Moreover, Fratto said, “this was a policy of design created by the Obama administration. There's really no one else to blame here. This was a storm of their creation.”
University of Virginia Center for Politics political analyst Kyle Kondik said the Bush-Obama parallel resonates because of the issue of competency.
“They're similar because it was a question of incompetence, as opposed to a policy disagreement with the American people,” “Kondik said. “It's more about the execution of the policy than the policy itself.”
Behind the scenes, actions by White House officials suggest they are worried about the stakes.
One observer close to the West Wing described staff as being in “full triage mode.”
“They’re only focusing on the things around them that have a potential to crash around them…the things that if not immediately addressed will put [Obama] deeper and deeper in the quicksand.”
“It’s a serious problem,” one official said,“ and there’s a palpable sense of urgency” that its not typical of the way the no-drama-Obama West Wing works.
Still, the Obama team remains confident that they can right the ship — both for ObamaCare and the remainder of the president’s second term agenda.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday that the president could regain his footing “by waking up every day and focusing on addressing the concerns that the American people have.”
“This is obviously a challenge, and we're facing the challenge, and we're up to the challenge,” he said.
“He can come out of this,” the former official said. “This can be a painful chapter in his second term biography or it can completely tear it down but he's throwing everything he has into this and I think he'll be able to move past it. I'd much rather be in this situation right now than what Bush faced around the same time of his presidency.”
Mario Trujillo and Justin Sink contributed to this story.