President Obama returned to Washington on Monday from a week’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard – and now has his hands full with a litany of challenges while wielding strikingly diminished influence:
• Egypt is on the verge of a bloody civil war, while much of the rest of the Middle East is in turmoil. But the president has little leverage to shape events, and appears mostly to be an observer as the debate builds about U.S. aid to Egypt.
• Congress and the White House are caroming toward another budget and debt ceiling crisis this fall, but Obama lacks a clear strategy to pressure the GOP into a deal on his terms. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have dismissed most of his proposals –including his latest offer of corporate tax reform and infrastructure spending.
• Obama had to postpone for a year several important provisions of his Affordable Care Act, while his signature 2010 law is under siege by GOP lawmakers and conservative groups and has the lowest approval rate to date, according to the latest CBS News poll. The success of his program could hinge entirely on the ability to convince 2.7 million young people to sign up for health insurance.
• Russian President Vladimir Putin snubbed Obama’s request to extradite NSA leaker Edward Snowden to the U.S. for disclosing classified details about government surveillance programs.
• The economy appears to be locked in perpetual doldrums, with every modest gain quickly offset by some economic disappointment or setback.
Momentum is working against Obama, whose lame duck status gets more prevalent with each passing day. Political journalists have already turned much of their attention to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton run for the presidency three years from now.
The challenges noted above could prove devastating to Obama’s presidency. Based on his speeches this summer, the West Wing seems to assume that the president can shift any and all blame onto a House Republican majority that defines success as repealing laws, instead of passing them.
Tom Kelly, a political science professor at Siena College in New York, who has conducted polling on presidents’ stature, contends that Obama’s current predicament is not unique.
“Obama is not looking at anything presidents have not looked at before,” he said yesterday. “He is simply confronting modern politics. If you are very much an Obama acolyte, you’re going to feel he’s been unable to do this because of Republican recalcitrance. If you think Obama is some kind of ogre, you’re going to see this as an inability to govern.”
“The courts in Scotland in the old days had guilty and not guilty – they also had not proven,” Kelly added. “This guy isn’t a full year into [his] second term.”
Recent history suggests Obama will also pay a price for continued dysfunction. The president has muddled through August with his approval ratings hitting 45 percent in what has become a standard summer slump, according to the Gallup Organization.
His ratings perked up last year after he beat GOP challenger Mitt Romney to win a second term in the Oval Office. But when the country last confronted a similar set of budgetary problems in 2011, his ratings failed to improve much as the year closed out.
“These challenges clearly provide Obama with an opportunity to increase his public support if he handles them well, but also could serve to bring his approval rating down if he does not,” Gallup diplomatically concluded in its Monday analysis.
Short of Republicans overplaying their hand and self-destructing, the GOP appears to have checkmated the White House. Some have pledged to stand in the way of anything Obama proposes. He cannot channel the persuasive presidential powers of Lyndon B. Johnson or Ronald Reagan – putting him in a Jimmy Carter-like malaise.
Carter, according to one account, was "widely considered a better man than he was president." He was dogged by a bad economy and the Iran hostage crisis, and the former Georgia governor suffered from inexperience in national politics and a propensity to pay too much attention to detail. He frequently backed down from confrontation, and had strained relations with Congress throughout his one term. His approval rating dropped from 66 percent to 34 percent by the time he left office, after being crushed by the charismatic and self-confident Reagan in the 1980 election.
At the same time, redistricting has allowed Republicans to make major strides at the state level. Right-leaning legislatures in places like Texas and North Carolina have rolled back years of progressive policies. Democrats look likely to lose Senate seats in Arkansas and West Virginia.
Obama has responded to the situation by going on the attack. His speeches on the economy and the plight of the middle class increasingly target the GOP, who he bashed over the weekend in his weekly address for trying to eliminate Obamacare.
“There’s also a group of Republicans in Congress working hard to confuse people, and making empty promises that they’ll either shut down the health care law, or, if they don’t get their way, they’ll shut down the government,” Obama said. “Many Republicans are more concerned with how badly this debate will hurt them politically than they are with how badly it’ll hurt the country.”
But there’s a glaring flaw in this approach: The congressional approval rating stands at an abysmal 7 percent among registered voters, according to a recent poll by The Economist and YouGov.
CAN’T REPLICATE BILL CLINTON
Former President Bill Clinton faced a similar problem of irrelevancy after Republicans won control of the House and Senate in 1994 and dictated a national agenda of sharp deficit reduction and welfare reform.
Clinton found a way to co-opt the GOP agenda: He worked with them to balance the budget and overhaul the welfare system, while passing a series of small-bore but politically popular measures.
Clinton was also able to find common ground with Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and other Republican leaders who could deliver their rank and file. Obama doesn’t have that luxury. He has tried to work through moderate and conservative Republican senators, but has no influence or standing with House Republicans.
In 2011, Bill Clinton was complimentary of Gingrich, saying, "I respect his ability to think and do. And I eventually hammered out a really productive relationship with him." After Obama leaves office, there’s little chance he’ll express a similar sentiment about his Republican colleagues.
Siena College’s Kelly said Obama is not likely to take a place among the great presidents he admires so much.
“In the case of people like Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, the answer was immediate. They were instant stars, the ones who have their faces carved into a rock in South Dakota. Everyone knew when they walked away from office that they did a hell of a job," Kelly said, adding that Obama's legacy isn't likely to be defined for years.
"Generally, [in] 25 and 50 years it firms up."