The Decline of the Obama Presidency


John Dos Passos, the novelist and historian, once said: “Often things you think are just beginning are coming to an end.” His observation was made in the 1960s. But it’s true today of Barack Obama’s presidency and the promise of a bright future for his second term.

Mr. Obama’s re-election stirred grand expectations. The vote heralded a new liberal era, or so it was claimed. His victory was said to reflect ideological, cultural and demographic trends that could keep Democrats in the majority for years to come. His second four years in the White House would be just the beginning.

Now, six months later, the Obama administration is in an unexpected and sharp state of decline. Mr. Obama has little influence on Congress. His presidency has no theme. He pivots nervously from issue to issue. What there is of an Obama agenda consists, at the moment, of leftovers from his first term or proposals that he failed to emphasize in his re-election campaign and thus have practically no chance of passage.

Congressional Republicans neither trust nor fear the president. And Democrats on Capitol Hill, to whom Mr. Obama has never been close, have grown leery of him. In the Senate, Democrats complain privately about his interference with the biggest domestic policy matter of 2013, immigration reform. His effect, the senators believe, can only be to weaken the fragile bipartisan coalition for reform and make passage of major legislation more perilous.

The Obama breakdown was not caused by the trio of scandals—IRS, Justice Department, Benghazi—now confronting the president. The decline preceded them. It’s the result of what Mr. Obama did in his first term, during the campaign and in the two months following his re-election. But the scandals have worsened his plight and made recovery next to impossible.

To be clear, the two problems—the decline and the scandals—are different matters. The scandals have not been linked directly to the president. They are vexing to the administration, but they are not the source of its current impotence. Instead, Mr. Obama’s power and influence have been sapped as a direct result of his own choices and decisions. He also suffers from shortcomings normal to a second term, such as a new, less able team of advisers and cabinet members and the arrogance fed by an impressive re-election.

In his first term, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate, Mr. Obama ignored Republicans—he didn’t need their votes to pass the $800 billion stimulus, the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) and Dodd-Frank, with its fresh wave of Wall Street regulations. Then, after Republicans captured the House in the 2010 midterm election, his efforts to reach agreements with them proved futile.

Why did Mr. Obama fail at compromise? For one thing, he is rarely able to mask his contempt for Republicans, especially those with conservative views. For another, he began to question Republicans’ motives, insisting publicly that their paramount goal in Washington is to protect the rich from higher taxes. As a tactic for encouraging compromise, his approach was counterproductive.

Robert Merry, the editor of the National Interest magazine and a longtime Washington journalist, recently pinpointed a bigger reason for the impasse after 2010: “It is a deadlock born largely of the president’s resolve to push an agenda for which he has no clear national consensus.” In other words, Mr. Obama is too liberal to find common ground with Republicans. The spending cuts he offers are illusory, the tax increases specific.

Then, after the November election, Mr. Obama spurned conciliation. He upped the ante, calling for higher spending, a new economic stimulus and an increase in the debt limit without congressional approval. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell laughed out loud when he heard the proposal.

Mr. Obama used his last bit of leverage to prevail over Republicans in the fiscal-cliff budget negotiations late last year. With the Bush-era tax cuts due to expire Dec. 31, the president forced Republicans to accept a hefty tax hike on the top 2% of wage earners. His short-term victory has had long-term political consequences. Republicans vowed to oppose new tax increases, which ruled out a “grand bargain” to reduce the deficit and national debt.

The exclusion of Republicans from a role in crafting ObamaCare has also backfired. By failing to ensure that the GOP had some influence on the health-care law, the president gave them no reason to support its implementation. With ObamaCare more unpopular than ever, House Republicans voted last month to repeal it. The vote was largely symbolic, but it was telling that two Democrats joined the effort. Short of repeal, Republican elected officials across the country are committed to making the law’s implementation, beginning this year, as difficult as possible.

Nor is tax reform likely to get anywhere this year or next despite Mr. Obama’s support, at least rhetorically, for the idea. He wants to eliminate tax preferences and loopholes so the government can collect more revenue. To win those changes, though, he would need make a bargain with Republicans, offering to cut tax rates, including the top rate on individual income, to generate faster economic growth. That clashes with Mr. Obama’s zeal for higher taxes on the well-to-do.

Faced with such obstacles, the president could focus instead on his own domestic agenda—if he had one. He doesn’t. He’s paying the price for a re-election campaign that was based on attacking his opponent, Mitt Romney, and not much else. In the president’s State of the Union address in February, he endorsed a $9 minimum wage and universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds, but those proposals lack a popular mandate. If he had campaigned for them last year, they might have better prospects now.

More often than not, presidents focus on foreign policy in their second terms. But Mr. Obama’s practice is to downgrade foreign policy in favor of domestic concerns. Where he has sought to restrain foreign governments—Russia, Iran, North Korea—he has been unsuccessful. His speech in May on national security and the terrorist threat revived an issue from his 2008 campaign, the closing of the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay. The chance that will happen is slim.

He is also pushing two leftovers from his first year in office, immigration reform and gun control. What’s striking about Mr. Obama’s handling of both is his complete absence of influence. On gun control, his speeches had zero impact. On immigration, his influence is entirely negative. He can impede a bill. He cannot aid its passage.

All this has left Mr. Obama in a state of weakness. And Democrats are increasingly blaming him. Doug Sosnik, a former senior adviser in the Clinton White House, wrote in a memo last month that Mr. Obama’s re-election “was a great political achievement, but the fact that he didn’t set out a clear policy agenda for a second term left him without a clear mandate to govern over a politically divided Congress.”

Mr. Sosnik, who is now deputy commissioner of the National Basketball Association, added: “There’s not a single member of either party [in Congress] who fears paying a political price for not falling in line with the President, making it even more difficult to get members to cast difficult votes.”

Mr. Obama’s top priority now is winning the House in 2014 while retaining control of the Senate. “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that we’ve got Nancy Pelosi back in the speakership,” he said last week at a Democratic fundraiser in Chicago. In Mr. Obama’s case, “everything” is unlikely to be enough.

Mr. Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, is a Fox News commentator.

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