As we’ve written over the last few weeks, the president has real, substantive problems in foreign policy and on Obamacare. But that doesn’t mean his problems are only substantive.

After weeks of intense focus on the crisis in Syria, the White House is set to turn to the economy. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

In quick succession, the Syria debacle and his frenetically partisan attack on Republicans as the Navy Yard shootings incident was unfolding have gotten the attention and approbation of a large number of usually friendly voices.

On Syria, there has been near uniform dismay among the pundits and foreign policy experts over the president’s unsteady and often confusing response to Syria’s WMD use.

Just as biting, however, was the criticism of his decision to lash out at Republicans in cartoonish terms at the same time as the killing at the Navy Yard. Politico (which is to Washington superficiality what Emily Post is to table manners) sent up the first flare. Soon CNN chimed in. (“Did Obama strike the wrong tone on Monday?”)

Maureen Dowd gnashed her teeth over the misstep: “[J]arringly, the president went ahead with his political attack, briefly addressing the slaughter before moving on to jab Republicans over the corporate tax rate and resistance to Obamacare. . . . It was out of joint, given that the Senate was put into lockdown and the Washington Nationals delayed a night game against the Atlanta Braves, noting on its Web site, ‘Postponed: Tragedy.'” Chuck Todd (who had his own issues after tweeting the incorrect name of the gunman) intoned on Tuesday that the White House “wish they had yesterday back.” Like Dowd, Andrea Mitchell saw a pattern: “It doesn’t seem as though they have got their footing here, first on Syria, now on this.”

Conservative cynics will say that it wasn’t the timing, but the actual contents of the incendiary comments that were the problem. (Conspiracy fans would say the media harped on the timing to “distract us” from how awful the remarks themselves were.) It was as clumsy and crude an attack as we have seen from this president. (“Are they really willing to hurt people just to score political points?“) With disdain running down the sides of the podium, he told us that “it’s time for responsible Republicans who share these goals — and there are a number of folks out there who I think are decent folks,” which should come as a relief to those who thought he considered all Republicans indecent. He actually seems convinced that he is the only serious, diligent pol inside the Beltway. (“They said that they wanted entitlement reform — but their leaders haven’t put
forward serious ideas that wouldn’t devastate Medicare or Social Security. And I’ve put forward ideas for sensible reforms to Medicare and Social Security and haven’t gotten a lot of feedback yet.”)

There are several noteworthy aspects to the president’s performance over the last few weeks, and the media coverage of him. First, for a president whose “style” and empty rhetoric got him elected twice, it’s a problem when his style goes out of fashion. He’s got little else (certainly not a good relationship with Congress) to fall back on. Second, the president once again is setting his base’s expectations very high and ginning up their anti-Republican ire. It’s a dangerous game when you eventually have to make a deal. Third, unlike prior budget fights when he could argue Republicans were trying to give tax cuts to the rich, it’s Obama this time who is seeking to defend unpopular positions (e.g. support for Obamacare).

And finally, his ham-handed attempt to separate the “decent” Republicans from the rest overlooks the real problem with extremists on his own side. As National Journal points out:

In recent weeks, congressional D’s have been uncharacteristically independent, breaking with their leadership and the Obama administration. First they opposed military action in Syria, warning the president they would deny his request to strike. And then came Larry Summers, who was brought down by a handful of Senate Democrats who let the White House know they would not confirm him as Fed chief.

All this bodes quite poorly for President Obama (and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi) as the spending and debt fights approach.

Between liberals wanting a fight and red state Democratic senators wanting to save their jobs, the president will face a more fractured Democratic contingent than he’s had to work with in the past. Coupled with his low approval ratings and increased public support for GOP’s policy positions, the result may be a president too obnoxious to strike a deal with Republicans and too weak to hold his side together. For that reason it may be that after all the hoopla both sides decide to kick the can down the road until after the 2014 election.