Stephen Harper or Barack Obama. You could spark a good debate at  Christmas dinner about who had the worse year.

The Canadian prime minister staggered through a Senate scandal that smothered his economic agenda, tarnished his government’s claim to hold the accountability high ground, and pushed Conservative support in most polls as much as 10 percentage points below the party's support in the last election.

South of the border, the U.S. president's prized health-care plan  arrived in critical condition. Polls put the president’s personal  approval ratings at near historic lows. His domestic agenda is largely  stagnant.

Obama faced White House reporters at a rare news conference last week with the chastened look of someone expecting a lump of coal.

"When you take this all together, has this been the worst year of your  presidency?'' was the first question.

"That's not how I think about it,'' Obama replied, managing a short laugh through clenched teeth. His focus, he said, remains on the economy, predicting 2014 "can be a breakthrough year for America."

Scripted answers

Harper wasn’t in the spirit of giving, either. He didn't bother with a  year-end news conference, granting just four interviews to sum up  2013.

His answers in the two given to English-language media were not only scripted, they were nearly identical, neatly packaged into digestible sound bites as interviewers sought his reaction to learning his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had paid off the improper expenses of Senator Mike Duffy. 

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Senator Mike Duffy arrives on Parliament Hill for a meeting on Parliament Hill on May 9, 2013. The so-called Duffy affair occupied much of the political and media attention on Parliament Hill in 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"A sense of anger, betrayal, disappointment, deception. You name it,'' Harper told Postmedia.

"I've had a range of emotions about that. You know, anger, betrayal,  disrespect, you name it, disappointment,'' he told Global News.

Harper, like Obama, was far happier talking about the future. And given the past year, that’s entirely understandable.

The PM says he's ''got the only strong team and the only group of  people with a serious economic agenda for the country.''

Harper no lame duck

So two leaders, both ending difficult years in office, both feeling the heat from voters, but that's really where the similarities end. 

Obama is in his second term, and under U.S. law cannot run again  in 2016. In some circles he's already a lame duck. In others, he's just  beginning to enjoy the kind of freedom politicians have when voters  don’t get another chance to pass judgment.

Harper, on the other hand, is planning to run, making it clear in those year-end interviews that he intends to lead the Conservatives in the 2015 election. And even with the first real signs of discontent in his caucus, Harper is anything but a lame duck.

His message remains solid economic stewardship, and on that score at least, 2013 was not a complete writeoff. His government set a foundation this year upon which to build, beginning with the preliminary free trade agreement with the European Union.

While CETA, as it’s known, was all but lost in the furor sparked by the Senate scandal, the deal is worth billions of dollars to the Canadian economy, removing virtually all tariffs on exports and imports and making Canadian products more competitive in Europe.

The federal budget is also well on the way to being balanced in time for the next election. Conservatives reduced direct spending for a  third consecutive year. Federal government spending as a share of  the economy fell to its lowest point since 1948.

Tough selling the message

Harper’s problem is that these things are hardly the stuff that makes for great ad copy, let alone the kind of thing to convince Canadians to move beyond the raft of bad news that’s stalked him since May, when Wright’s largesse to Duffy first became public.

From that point on, question period and the media fixated on what the prime minister knew, when he knew it and how on earth he wasn’t told when so many of his underlings were aware of Wright’s decision.

Harper has skirted those questions, even in his year-end interviews. 

Beyond acknowledging the prime minister ‘’is always responsible’’  for the actions of his government, he’s said little of substance about  what blame he accepts, or how the situation spiralled so wildly out of  control.

If the Senate scandal overwhelmed the good news of 2013, it also had the effect of underplaying other problems, including unrest among some Conservative MPs who chafe at the Prime Minister’s Office telling them what to say and when they can say it.

The government is fighting a legal challenge initiated over Justice Marc Nadon’s qualifications to accept Harper’s nomination to the Supreme Court of Canada. Nadon’s not sitting until the matter is resolved, leaving the country’s highest court short-handed at a time when judges of the lower courts are refusing to bow to the government’s victims' rights agenda.

The provinces are refusing to go along with the proposed Canada Job Grant, which would see Ottawa, the provinces and business kick in up to $5,000 each to train Canadians for skilled jobs that are now going unfilled by the thousands.

​And there’s a growing dispute with the provinces over enhancing the  Canada Pension Plan as a way of ensuring Canadians enter their  retirement years with enough money.

Job creation. Retirement security. Victims’ rights. These were the kinds of issues that once defined the Conservatives agenda. And who knows, they could again. But that depends on whether Harper can retake the agenda he lost in 2013 and show Canadians that the new year is more than just a turned page on the calendar.