Can a president truly become irrelevant?

When Barack Obama draws criticism from Republicans and conservatives, it’s about as much of a breaking news flash as Dog Bites Man. We begin to move into Man Bites Dog territory, however, when a mounting wave of unrest comes from his own left flank – a scenario which has not only come to pass, but shifted into a significantly higher gear this past week. One of his latest detractors is found coming from the sector which would normally contain his biggest cheerleaders. This just in from Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast.

More dispiriting news, this time about the White House overturning the EPA’s proposed new rules on smog. That comes a few hours after the jobs report from Friday morning, one of the bleakest yet. And it comes a few days in advance of what everyone expects will be a small-thinking, modest, blah jobs speech by the president. It’s not only getting to the point where it’s getting hard to see him winning reelection. It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to imagine people taking him seriously for the remaining 14 months of his current term…

I keep thinking back lately to that candidate and team I watched in 2008. The candidate really had his finger on something. The team almost never made a serious mistake. When a mistake did happen, they did a respectable job of digging their way out of it. They had some fight in them. Well, I’ve learned something new from these folks: Up until now, I’ve thought that running a strong presidential campaign is a sign that one can probably govern fairly well too. But there appears to be little correlation between the two.

Tomasky’s article is not coming from some default position of criticizing the White House. In fact, he goes to great lengths to continue the recent meme about how Republicans are intentionally fighting job growth to damage the president’s reelection prospects. (An interesting theory, all things considered. It’s as if they seem to believe that there’s a magical switch deep in the bowels of the US Capital Building which could suddenly put everyone back to work, but John Boehner is refusing to flip it so the GOP can pick up a few more seats next year.)

But the complaints being aired are interesting none the less. A couple of them are the usual recent gripes about Obama “backing down” on the ozone regulations and “giving in to the Republicans” on spending cuts. But the one I found the most telling was the comment, “a small thinking, modest, blah jobs speech..”

What is driving President Obama from a position where he can exert any real influence on the political process – even from inside his own party – is not failed or detrimental policies. (Though there have been more than a few of those.) It’s the image he has come to project of being completely impotent in the face of any opposition, petulant when people fail to immediately go along with his brilliant vision, and incapable of wielding the power of the Oval Office to any tangible extent.

This isn’t exactly something new, either. The first warning signs should have come when Obama was negotiating the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Instead of turning the chore over to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, (as he did on so many other issues like the health care law) he appointed himself chief negotiator with the GOP. Obama wanted the middle class tax cuts, but wanted to end the one for the highest rates. The Republicans, on the other hand, wanted all of the tax cuts. So Obama compromised by giving the GOP everything they wanted, which included the piece Obama wanted. I remember doing a radio hit during that period where I characterized the negotiations like this:

REPUBLICANS: OK, Mr. President. What we want is for you to buy us this really expensive dinner, complete with filet mignon, truffles and a bottle of sixty year old scotch. We know it’s expensive, but if you’ll do this, we’ll let you buy us lunch too. And that’s going to cost a lot less.

OBAMA: (scratching chin) Well… I really did want to buy you lunch. OK. I’ll take it!

Not exactly Donald Trump level deal making skills on display there…

There were more examples where his base was disheartened, but they were just leading up to the speech debacle this week. Without rehashing the entire thing, it was one of the most childish, petulant displays of an ineffective temper tantrum I’ve seen in ages. But perhaps the worst part – at least in the eyes of his progressive supporters – was that he once again immediately backed down the moment Boehner showed the slightest sign of resistance. And now he is scheduling one of the most rare of Washington occasions – an address to a joint session of Congress which is not the State of the Union speech – and even his die-hard supporters seem to be considering watching a re-run of Benny Hill that night instead. Nobody seems to think this will be more than another flaccid campaign appearance which will waste one of the chief executives’ most powerful tools for zero results.

Moves like this leave the Democrats adrift in terms of strategy, with the titular head of their party effectively Missing in Action on the political battlefield. Is it any wonder so many of them are throwing up their hands in dismay? It’s not that Obama isn’t pursuing the correct policies to make them happy. It’s that he’s completely ineffective in getting any of them accomplished, despite controlling the White House and the upper chamber of Congress.

All of this brings us back our joint entry and exit question: can a sitting president ever become completely irrelevant in American politics? And has Barack Obama already achieved that dubious distinction?