Where is President Obama?

The battle over funding the government for the rest of 2011 has gone on for months, but the most involvement we’ve seen from Obama was a few phone calls placed to negotiators over the weekend. It’s the “Can you hear me now?” strategy. This wouldn’t matter so much if they were being heard. Unfortunately, the White House let House Speaker John Boehner and the tea party good-cop-bad-cop them into agreeing to the $30 billion-plus in cuts that the GOP leadership wanted from Day One. With negotiations breaking down, Obama has invited congressional leaders to the White House to hammer out a deal — but at this point, the question is simply how bad the final agreement will be.

But perhaps more disappointing are the times the president has shown up. Last week, Obama laid out his first major energy plan since the campaign. For anyone who remembers President-elect Obama warning that “few challenges facing America — and the world — are more urgent than combating climate change,” this plan, which focused on the vastly less urgent, but far higher-polling, question of “energy independence,” was a terrible disappointment. Forget the ambitious cap-and-trade proposal that candidate Obama pushed in 2008. President Obama’s energy plan undershot the cap-and-trade plan that John McCain and Sarah Palin pushed in 2008.

And the less said about the State of the Union and the subsequent budget, the better. “Winning the future” has come at the expense of a plan for the present. Obama’s budget doesn’t include investments of the size needed to change the trajectory of our economy, and it also waves the white flag on doing more for the unemployed — and the economy in general — right now. The best you can say about the budget is that it’s smart defense — but given the criticism it received upon its introduction and the fact that we don’t know where the final compromise will fall between the Obama administration’s tepid opening bid and Rep. Paul Ryan’s radical counterproposal, it’s not even clear that it’ll succeed at that.

Something has gone wrong in the Obama administration. And the candidate we need to step forward and point it out isn’t whichever Republican manages to limp shamefacedly out of the primaries after agreeing to call Obama a Kenyan anti-colonialist who kowtows to big business and Karl Marx and believes in both radical Islam and dogmatic atheism. It’s the Barack Obama who ran in 2008. The one who believed in “the fierce urgency of now,” rather than “after the election, we hope.”

You can take a critique like this too far, of course. It’s true that the first two years of the Obama administration were the most productive since the Great Society. Health-care reform, embattled and imperfect as it is, is more than anyone could rightly have expected them to achieve. The public cares little about global warming and that cap-and-trade has no chance in Congress — even McCain has adopted the party line and refashioned himself as an opponent of real action on the issue. Republicans now control the House and can easily filibuster anything put forward in the Senate. There’s no set of speeches Obama could give that could turn all this around.

But that doesn’t mean it’s time to give up the fight. The conventional wisdom is that Obama is being given a great gift this week by Ryan, whose budget proposes to privatize Medicare and slash Medicaid. But the conventional wisdom might be wrong: Ryan is beginning the debate far to the right. He won’t get everything he wants, but if he gets 50 percent of what he wants, or even 35 percent, it’ll be the most dramatic victory that conservatives have scored against the social safety net in a generation — larger, at least in dollar terms, than anything done to welfare in 1996.

And it ignores that Ryan was also given a great gift: the opportunity to set the budget conversation virtually on his own. The Obama administration whiffed on both its budget and the State of the Union that preceded it. The president could have said that for every three dollars we cut, one dollar needs to be invested in our future. He could’ve called for a $16 billion-a-year fund to power clean-energy innovation — a goal proposed by the American Energy Innovation Council, a coalition of business leaders including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Xerox’s Ursula Burns — and threatened to veto any legislation without it. He could’ve proposed temporarily, or even permanently, moving some of the employer-side payroll tax to a carbon tax so that we make hiring cheaper at a time when we need more of it and carbon emissions more expensive at a time when we need less of them.

I don’t blame Obama for being unable to change Washington. I don’t blame him for being unable to pass cap-and-trade. But I blame him for ceasing to try. And for sometimes letting what can be done distract from what needs to be done.

The administration’s strategy right now is to stay out of the mud with Congress, let the tea party punch itself out and then run as the grown-up in the room. And who knows? If the economy keeps improving, it might well work.

But it’s not good enough. Back when Obama won the South Carolina primary, he warned of a “status quo that extends beyond any particular party and right now that status quo is fighting back with everything it’s got.” If anything, he was understating his case. But he was right to try to inspire voters to cast away their skepticism, to say that “where we are met with cynicism and doubt and fear and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words — yes, we can.”

Lately, the administration’s creed can be summed up more modestly: “Hopefully, the Senate won’t let them.”

The contrast with the 2008 campaign — which correctly saw some virtue in ambition, even if what it promised was unrealistic — is stark. Perhaps the question isn’t “Where is President Obama?” It’s “Where is candidate Obama?”