The president’s power to work his will only two months after his second inauguration seems remarkably feeble. Beyond a small segment of taxpayers, he hasn’t been able to extract more revenue. He could not stave off the sequester. His agenda for more domestic spending is going nowhere. His anti-gun legislation is shrinking as it limps through the Senate; whatever comes out will no doubt be watered down some more by the House. Immigration reform is proceeding in spite of his periodic efforts to raise the stakes (such as warning that border security can’t be a condition for opening a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants).
There are two ways of looking at this: Either his power evaporated in the wake of sequester overreach or his ability to work his will on Congress has always been slight.
I tend to favor the latter analysis. His big legislative triumphs came when Democrats held majorities in the House and Senate and slammed through Obamacare and the initial stimulus on party-line votes. He’s really never been able to sway Republicans or to move his own party to the center. He didn’t just fail to reach a grand bargain; he failed in 2011 (in his first term) as well. Sure, his poll numbers are down; however his approval rating is about where it was before his reelection bounce. He has always been a polarizing president, in fact, the most polarizing in history when you look at his tiny approval rating from the opposing party’s members.
When Karl Rove writes that “No president is ever irrelevant, but less than 10 weeks into his second term Mr. Obama’s power is waning,” this assumes that he was at some point after he lost his House majority super-duper effective. I don’t see it.
Two things are different from his first term, however, and both act in ways to diminish the president.
First, the Senate has been dragged into doing something. It passed a budget; it sent four of its members to the Gang of 8, so immigration reform is now conceivable. In other words, when the president does less (no budget yet, no complete immigration plan, no XL Keystone pipeline decision) than even the lethargic Democratic Senate, he looks puny and his efforts seem vaguely pathetic in the face of action on the Hill.
Second, the sequester may have been the tipping point for the mainstream media, which finally have begun questioning his veracity and admonishing him for arrogance. Caught in telling many small to medium untruths, he sparked the media to engage in a higher level of confrontation (well, in comparison to the roll-over-and-play-dead first term). That may be less pointed than under his Republican predecessor and it may be inconsistent, but it is markedly different from the reverential treatment of the first term.
For conservatives, on the domestic front the greatest damage was done when Obamacare was rammed through. Now that the ramifications of that convoluted legislation are becoming stark, even that seems to work against the president’s aura of command. But it is now quite possible that the worst of Obama’s domestic agenda is in the rearview mirror. Having fought him to a standstill, the House can now begin to lay out its alternatives.
As for the president, as many presidents before him did, he may turn to foreign policy to try to accomplish big things. Goading Israel into apologizing for defending itself against the flotilla isn’t going to do it, and allowing the Syrian civil war to metastasize isn’t going to help.
Perhaps Republicans can’t ever accomplish entitlement or tax reform with this president, but they have since 2010 effectively deprived him of the ability to do more harm to our fiscal condition. If, then, his power has not “waned,” it sure hasn’t surged back to full force. For that, Republicans in the House and Senate deserve credit.