I think we’re all agreed the president is fading—failing to lead, to break through, to show he’s not at the mercy of events but, to some degree at least, in command of them. He couldn’t get a win on gun control with 90% public support. When he speaks on immigration reform you get the sense he’s setting it back. He’s floundering on Syria. The looming crisis on implementation of ObamaCare has begun to fill the news. Even his allies are using the term “train wreck.” ObamaCare is not only the most slovenly written major law in modern American history, it is full of sneaked-in surprises people are just discovering. The Democrats of Washington took advantage of the country’s now-habitual distractedness: The country, now seeing what’s coming in terms of taxes and fees, will not be amused. Mr. Obama’s brilliant sequester strategy—scare the American public into supporting me—flopped. Congress is about to hold hearings on Boston and how the brothers Tsarnaev slipped through our huge law-enforcement and immigration systems. Benghazi and what appear to be its coverups drags on and will not go away; press secretary Jay Carney was reduced to saying it happened “a long time ago.” It happened in September. The economy is stuck in low-growth, employment in no-growth. The president has about a month to gather himself together on the budget, tax reform and an immigration deal before Congress goes into recess. What are the odds?
Republicans don’t oppose him any less after his re-election, and Democrats don’t seem to support him any more. This week he was reduced to giving a news conference in which he said he’s got juice, reports of his death are greatly exaggerated. It was bad. And he must be frustrated because he thinks he’s trying. He gives speeches, he gives interviews, he says words, but he doesn’t really rally people, doesn’t create a wave that breaks over the top of the Capitol Dome and drowns the opposition, or even dampens it for a moment.
Mr. Obama’s problem isn’t really the Republicans. It’s that he’s supposed to be popular. He’s supposed to have some sway, some pull and force. He was just re-elected. He’s supposed to have troops. “My bill is launched, unleash the hounds of war.” But nobody seems to be marching behind him. Why can’t he rally people and get them to press their congressmen and senators? I’m not talking about polls, where he hovers in the middle of the graph, but the ability to wield power.
The president seems incapable of changing anything, even in a crisis. He’s been scored as passive and petulant, but it’s the kind of passivity people fall into when nothing works. “People do what they know how to do,” a hardened old pol once said, meaning politicians use whatever talent they have, and when it no longer works they continue using it.
There’s no happy warrior in there, no joy of the battle, just acceptance of what he wearily sees as the landscape. He’d seem hapless if he weren’t so verbally able.
So, the president is stuck. But it’s too early to write him off as a lame duck because history has a way of intervening. A domestic or international crisis that is well-handled, or a Supreme Court appointment, can make a president relevant. There are 44 months left to Mr. Obama’s presidency. He’s not a lame duck, he’s just lame.
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Which has me thinking of two things that have weakened the Obama presidency and haven’t been noted. One was recent and merely unhelpful. The other goes back, and encouraged a mindset that became an excuse, perhaps a fatal one.
The recent one: In the days after the 2012 election the Democrats bragged about their technological genius and how it turned the election. They told the world about what they’d done—the data mining, the social networking, that allowed them to zero in on Mrs. Humperdink in Ward 5 and get her to the polls. It was quite impressive and changed national politics forever. But I suspect their bragging hurt their president. In 2008 Mr. Obama won by 9.5 million votes. Four years later, with all the whizbang and money, he won by less than five million. When people talk about 2012 they don’t say the president won because the American people endorsed his wonderful leadership, they say he won because his team outcomputerized the laggard Republicans.
This has left him and his people looking more like cold technocrats who know how to campaign than leaders who know how to govern. And it has diminished claims of a popular mandate. The president’s position would be stronger now if more people believed he had one.
What damaged the Obama presidency more, looking back, was, ironically, the trash-talking some Republican leaders indulged in after the 2008 campaign. It entered their heads at the Obama White House and gave them a warped sense of the battlefield.
In a conference call with conservative activists in July 2009, then-Sen. Jim DeMint said of the president’s health-care bill, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” Not long after, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was quoted as saying that the GOP’s primary goal was to make Mr. Obama a one-term president.
The press hyped this as if it were something new, a unique and epic level of partisan animus. Members of the administration also thought it was something new. It made them assume no deals with Republicans were possible, and it gave them a handy excuse they still use: “It’s not us, they vowed from the beginning they wouldn’t work with us!”
But none of it was new. The other side always vows to crush you. Anyone who’d been around for a while knew the Republicans were trying to sound tough, using hyperbole to buck up the troops. It’s how they talk when they’re on the ropes. But the president and his staffers hadn’t been around for a while. They were young. They didn’t understand what they were hearing was par for the course.
Bill Clinton’s foes made fierce vows about him, the enemies of both Bushes did the same. The opposing party always gets on the phone or gathers in what used to be Georgetown dens to denigrate the new guy and vow to fight him to the end. That’s how blowhards blow. When Reagan came in they vowed to take him down, and it was personal. Speaker Tip O’Neill called him “ignorant” and a “disgrace” and said it was “sinful” that he was president. He called Reagan “a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America” and said: “He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.” Chris Matthews, an O’Neill staffer, says he once greeted Reagan in the Capitol with the words: “Mr. President, welcome to the room where we plot against you.”
They did. Reagan knew it.
Yet he had no problem dealing successfully with O’Neill. He didn’t moan, “Oh they hate me, it’s no use!”
Note to the next White House: There’s always gambling at Rick’s place. It’s never a shock and not an excuse. It’s business as usual. And if you’re a leader you can lead right past it.