The president has had an almost uniformly bad start to his second term. Scandals, the woe-begotten implementation of his health law, a chaotic unraveling of the once-vaunted “Arab Spring,” the ascendancy of rival nations on the world stage and the intractable partisan standoff in Congress have left Americans skeptical of Obama’s election-year plea to “hold on” just a bit longer to let his agenda work.
In survival mode and stripped of the political stars who helped the administration stay on offense for the first four years, Team Obama is looking bereft. The result of the White House summit of former political aides who helped the president settle on trying to hang the Syria debacle around the necks of Congressional Republicans suggest that David Axelrod & Co. themselves have lost their chops whilst lolling in MSNBC green rooms and Hoovering up corporate cash on K Street.
It seems like it has been 10 years, but in reality it has been less than 10 months since the president’s second inauguration. And as President Obama tries to put Syria behind him, nothing on the domestic agenda looks promising. I don’t know what the opposite of the Midas Touch is, but that’s what Obama has…
Obama was also dealt an embarrassing blow this week as Larry Summers withdrew his name from consideration for Federal Reserve Chairman. I wasn’t even for Summers getting the job, but this was another telling sign that the president lacks any political capital on the Hill — among members of either party. If he wasn’t so weak, he might have gotten his pick for the Fed, but as it is, he must defer to the loud voices making demands. The president does not have any influence with members of Congress now, and he isn’t going to have any going forward. I think it’s safe to say he cannot take a leadership role in the looming debt ceiling and budget battles…
Good grief, even the weather won’t cooperate with the president. A leaked copy of the Fifth Assessment Report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that, ”there has been a 60 percent increase in the amount of ocean covered with ice” in the past year, with some scientists now even predicting an upcoming phase of global cooling. The melting ice cap was supposed to be the final canary in the coal mine. Well, the canary is bigger and stronger than ever.
In the first year of his second term, the president has failed on virtually every front. He put his prestige on the line to pass federal gun-control legislation–and lost. He made climate change a central part of his inaugural address–and nothing has happened. The president went head-to-head with Republicans on sequestration–and he failed. He’s been forced to delay implementation of the employer mandate, a key feature of the Affordable Care Act. ObamaCare is more unpopular than ever, and it’s turning out to be a “train wreck” (to quote Democratic Senator Max Baucus) in practice. The most recent jobs report was the worst in a year, with the Obama recovery already qualifying as a historically weak one. Immigration reform is going nowhere. And then there’s Syria, which has turned out to be an epic disaster. (To be sure, Mr. Obama’s Middle East failures go well beyond Syria–but Syria is the most conspicuous failure right now).
In watching the Obama presidency dissolve before our eyes, there is a cautionary tale to be told. Every presidency falls short of the expectations that the candidate sets. But no man has ever promised more and delivered less than the current occupant of the Oval Office.
All of the extravagant promises and claims — of “Yes We Can!” and “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for;” of hope and change and slowing the rise of the oceans; of claiming his candidacy would “ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest” — lie in ruin.
The president’s zigzagging policy on Syria, the Larry Summers nomination debacle, and Monday’s partisan budget speech at the very moment that the nation was reeling from a madman’s shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard, are only the latest manifestations of a mystifying paradox: Barack Obama, so surefooted when it comes to the politics of campaigning, often seems flatfooted when it comes to the politics of governing.
The president’s insistent above-the-frayishness, his apparent distaste for the grubby business of retail salesmanship in the Beltway bazaar, frequently seems self-defeating. It’s at least a partial explanation (other than the Obama Derangement Syndrome that infects many House Republicans) for his failure to enact popular gun control legislation, immigration reform, and any number second-term agenda items. “Style,” in this case, is shorthand for a flair in manipulating to one’s advantage the unpretty yet necessary process of legislative sausage-making…
“My take is that on the one hand, he is right that the D.C. Conventional Wisdom echo chamber does grade on style,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy told The Daily Beast in an email, “but on the other hand, the president played the style card right into the White House in 2008. Hard to have it both ways.”
“Style,” as the president would have it, matters. Adversaries and allies, foreign and domestic, take a measure of the president’s steel. They judge whether he can be trusted, whether he will back down, whether he has what it takes to lead his country and the world. In the past few weeks, I have encountered not a single person outside the White House, Republican or Democrat, who has kind words for Obama’s performance. Scornful may not be too strong a word for the consensus view, though it is scorn leavened, at least among the more thoughtful critics, with appreciation for the no-good-options reality of Syria.
This attitude is especially important because it arrives at such a dangerous moment for the country, with looming deadlines on government funding and the debt ceiling, and because it is amplified by presidential mishandling of other matters…
So Obama enters yet another treacherous period in a weakened state, with his political allies distrustful and his political opponents caught up in their own dysfunction. Machiavelli advised that it is better to be feared than loved; at the moment, in Congress, Obama is neither.
For four years, President Obama counted on fellow Democrats to rally to his side in a series of epic battles with Republicans over the direction of the country. But now, deep in his fifth year in office, Mr. Obama finds himself frustrated by members of his own party weary of his leadership and increasingly willing to defy him…
They complain the White House has not consulted enough and failed to assert leadership. They say Mr. Obama has been too passive and ceded momentum to Republicans. Their grievances are sometimes contradictory; some grouse that he takes on causes he cannot win, while others say he does not fight hard enough for principled positions. The failure to enact tightened gun control laws and the Republican hold on immigration legislation have left liberals little to celebrate this year…
“It makes it a lot harder when it’s your own party,” said Peter H. Wehner, a top Bush aide at the time. “You can’t fire back with the same intensity and vehemence as when it’s the other party. And it just changes the dynamics — people expect you to be criticized by the other party. When your own party does it, it’s an indication of weakness.”
There are no “obstructionist” Republican fingerprints on the conspicuous and power-depleting defeats for Obama. He never sought a vote on Syria and therefore was not humiliated. The same is true for Summers. But Obama lost ground on both fronts and ultimately surrendered to political realities that, for the first time in his presidency, were determined by his own obdurate party.
This does not mean Obama will lose coming fights over the sequester, shutdown, or debt ceiling. But he is visibly weaker, and even his sense of victory in Syria is so unidimensional, it has no lasting sway in either Democratic cloakroom. More important, Democrats are no longer afraid to defy him or to disregard the will of their constituents—broadly defined in the case of Syria; activist and money-driving in the case of Summers. This, of course, indirectly announces the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign and an intra-party struggle over the post-Obama Democratic matrix.
This shift—a tectonic one—will give Republicans new opportunities on the fiscal issues and in coming debates over immigration and implementation of Obamacare. Republicans have never known a world where Democratic defections were so unyielding and damaging.
Nearly five years into his presidency, and nearly a decade after he first sprang to national notice with his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, there is still no such thing as Obamaism — no clearly understood philosophy or larger strategy of governance.
To the contrary, the president and his team have always had an allergic reaction to being placed on an ideological spectrum with any more precision than that he is a pragmatic progressive. Whatever that means. He has never tried to fashion a “Third Way” philosophy in the style of Bill Clinton, or stood for bold liberalism of the type exemplified by Ted Kennedy or, more recently, Elizabeth Warren.
This vagueness may have worked in his favor in two elections. But its problem for governing, as seen in recent weeks, is that it tends to leave Obama all alone, in a capital where he desperately needs allies and people who assume good will about the political maneuvering necessary for any effective president. Liberals regarded Obama as a sell-out for flirting with a Summers nomination, while the remnants of Clinton’s “New Democrats” have long been frustrated by Obama as someone who never really shared their critique of traditional interest-group urban liberalism.
On Syria, neither hawks nor doves believed that Obama was acting on any principle deeper than desperate improvisation to get out of a jam.