President Barack Obama delivered an impassioned speech Thursday at the memorial service for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. But that was to be expected. We all know Obama can give a stem-winder. What wasn’t expected was that this would be by far the toughest week of the Obama presidency—the first time I can remember the president being dealt an unequivocal policy defeat. Only the "shellacking" of the 2010 midterm comes close, and even there a case can be made that achieving the decades-old progressive dream of universal health care was worth losing the House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
The flurry of developments in the investigation into the Boston attack, as well as into the Ricin-laced letters sent to the president and Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), as well as the devastating fertilizer explosion in Texas Wednesday night, as well as whatever other craziness happens in the next 24 hours, may obscure the significance of these past few days for the Obama presidency. But that would be a (somewhat understandable) mistake. Obama’s remarkable run of political luck has come to an end—and by his own hand.
The president has, time and again, seen events unfold to his advantage. He used the liberal moment of his first two years in office to expand the federal government dramatically. He has, by and large, achieved what he then set out to accomplish: health care reform, additional spending on education and alternative energy, a tax increase, defense cuts, and withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He’s been blessed with incompetent rivals. The opponents he faced in 2008 and 2012 were weak candidates, and in both of his elections the economy favored his position (depression brought him to office; slow but steady reductions in unemployment kept him there). A flock of wacko birds in 2010 and 2012 helped keep the Senate Democratic.
The combination of policy success and coddling by the media was sure to affect the president’s judgment. His ego never has been what one could call petite. "Phil, what’s my name," the president is said to have asked his legislative director one day in the first term. "President Obama," the aide replied. And Obama said, "Of course I’m feeling lucky."
Such words are usually delivered at the moment in the play when Nemesis appears onstage, ready to correct the hubris of a tragic hero. And though Obama is neither a tragic figure nor a heroic one, he definitely suffers from a case of misplaced confidence. He clearly assumed that the power of his oratory, his charisma, and national shock at the horror in Newtown, Conn., would allow him to sign the first significant gun legislation in a quarter of a century. He was wrong.
The president entered the gunfight with three priorities: reinstating the assault weapons ban, banning high-capacity magazines,and universal background checks. By the beginning of this week it was clear that the assault weapons and high-capacity magazine amendments could not pass the Senate and that the background check language would have to be riddled with loopholes and concessions to have any chance. The amendment cobbled together by Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) was a misshapen shadow of the original proposal.The president hoped it would earn the requisite 60 votes. It did not.
Hence the genuine frustration and anger the president displayed Wednesday evening during his statement on the failure of his gun initiatives. Obama’s words may have been a futile protest directed at the Senate and the NRA, but they also carried the weight of shock at his own inability to convince four Democratic senators to support Manchin-Toomey. Once more, in Obama’s view, "politics" had conspired to frustrate his will. But even he would have to acknowledge that this happened only because he chose to fight over gun control.
The public did not want a fight. It has consistently prioritized the economy and the deficit over gun control. Nor had Obama campaigned on gun regulations in 2012. If there was any substance to his reelection, it was the promise he made in the Des Moines Register interview to push for amnesty for illegal immigrants. But the president went ahead anyway, deluded by the polls and by the misperception that the politics of the gun issue had changed.
And so any objective spectator would have to ask: What exactly has the president accomplished in the first 100 days of his second term? And here the only answer can be that Obama won Chuck Hagel confirmation as secretary of defense despite only four Republican senators voting for him and having Hagel recant all of the positions that endeared him to the antiwar left and right. Some accomplishment.
Almost forgot: Obama has also made the Bush tax rates permanent for 98 percent of Americans and signed the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester into law. And I suppose you can also credit him for signing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Here is a presidency for which expectations are completely disproportionate to actual or possible achievements. The world conjured by Beyoncé and Richard Blanco and Barack Obama at the presidential inauguration in January is still some ways from coming into being. The president and his allies must now turn to the immigration deal agreed to by the so-called "Gang of Eight" in the Senate if they are to have any substantive legislative accomplishment prior to the onset of the 2014 campaign. But the success of that compromise depends on the extent to which Obama resists becoming involved in it. Which is a funny place to be for a transformational president.
"I just see a huge train wreck coming down," Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) said at a committee hearing a few hours before he voted against Manchin-Toomey. He was referring to Obamacare, but the metaphor seems an apt description of the president’s second term. Indeed the confusion and cost increases that will accompany the implementation of Obamacare will redistribute the president’s political capital to Republican candidates in 2014. A decision by the president not to approve the Keystone pipeline would do the same.
If anything Baucus was speaking too late. This train wreck has already begun. And it is just getting started.