Out of His Hands

Column: From health care to Syria, President Obama is at the mercy of events

• May 3, 2013 5:00 am


One hundred days into his second term, where do President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party stand?

Nowhere good.

Taxes are up on the wealthiest 2 percent of taxpayers, but the Bush tax rates remain the same for the other 98 percent. And the Alternative Minimum Tax has been indexed for inflation. Permanently.

Obama’s second-term cabinet picks have been or are in the process of being confirmed. The most contentious choice, Chuck Hagel, won the support of only four Republicans after delivering what is widely regarded as the worst performance at a confirmation hearing in modern memory.

Obama signed the sequester cuts into law on March 1. Despite several attempts to portray the cuts in the worst possible light, and to make them as painful as possible, they remain in place.

Obama wasted several months on gun control legislation on which he did not campaign and which would not have prevented last December’s horrible mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. His proposals were watered down to the point where gun control advocates ridiculously said a compromise of a compromise on background checks was the defining political issue of our time. And the compromise of a compromise lost.

The president’s best hope for significant legislation before 2014 is the immigration reform the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up in earnest next week. But the success of that bill depends on it not being associated with the president. Indeed, the president is reportedly cautioning liberal groups not to demand too much on immigration so Republicans will continue foolishly to believe a "comprehensive" bill is in the interests of the nation and their party. It isn’t.

Obama’s call for an increase in the minimum wage is going nowhere. Nor is his call for further measures to reduce carbon emissions. Education, energy, and transportation initiatives have faded away. The president was forced to explain at this week’s press conference that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act is not, despite what members of his own party are saying, a "train wreck." His approval rating is below 50 percent. Six Democratic senators are retiring (so far).

Obama is losing the press. E.J. Dionne is wondering where’s the hope and Maureen Dowd says the president is a lame duck. The antiwar left doesn’t like his drone policy and civil libertarians are angry Guantanamo is still open. A few deficit hawks continue to argue for a budget "grand bargain" that will not happen and that Obama is powerless to effect. Though the glue that holds the Democratic-media coalition together—animus against Republicans and conservatives—remains strong, that coalition is not expanding or advancing its agenda.

On the contrary: We are beginning to see the sort of party divisions that are only supposed to happen inside the GOP. Sens. Baucus, Pryor, Begich, and Heitkamp came under fierce criticism from fellow Democrats after they voted against the Toomey-Manchin background check amendment. Now Baucus is retiring, Pryor and Begich are vulnerable in 2014, and Mike Bloomberg and Obama’s Organizing for Action say they may target pro-gun Democrats. Greens and unions fought in the Massachusetts Democratic Senate primary, and the greens won.

Hispanic groups say amendments supported by gay-rights activists may jeopardize the immigration bill. The president’s proposal for adjusting the way Social Security benefits are calculated angered safety-net liberals. Hardly anyone not on the payroll of the DCCC will tell you the Democrats will take back the House next year, and on the Senate side, the question is really how many seats the donkeys will lose. Is this really the picture of political health?

The phase of Obama’s second term in which he controlled the agenda was over weeks before his inauguration. From Election Day 2012 to January 2, 2013, Obama rode high as Republicans squirmed under the pressure of looming tax increases on every American. This was the moment that gave rise to the triumphalist rhetoric of Obama’s second inaugural and State of the Union and the corresponding liberal commentary proclaiming the president’s eagerness finally to crush the Republicans.

In retrospect, though, that moment ended when Obama signed the tax deal making practically all of the Bush rates permanent. Obama must have believed he still had leverage in the impending sequester cuts, which were expected to be so horrible that the Republicans would be forced back to the negotiating table. And perhaps that might have happened. Perhaps it might even happen one day in the future. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Republicans called Obama’s bluff, let the cuts go through, and have paid no price. The failure of the gun vote in the Senate was a second demonstration that Obama suddenly was at the mercy of events. It was a point made emphatically and terribly when the Tsarnaev brothers detonated their bombs at the Boston Marathon.

The terror attack took the gun control fight out of the news and scrambled the rest of the president’s agenda. The revelation that the terrorists had been granted asylum, and the immigration status of the three suspects taken into custody Wednesday, threw into question the notion that immigration is an unalloyed good.

As if that weren’t enough, the disclosure of possible use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War made the president even more defensive. "Red lines" had to be redrawn. New rationalizations for inaction had to be made.

From Obamacare to spending to foreign policy, the president is reacting to events rather than shaping them. It’s what happens when you win reelection without a clear agenda that has a realistic chance of passing Congress. It’s what happens when your foreign policy is based on the concept of leading from behind.

"After string of setbacks, more charm may be the last, best option for Obama," read the headline in Monday’s Washington Post. Really? This is the president who "really doesn’t like people." If charm is all he has left, it's over.

Barring a rapid and widespread economic recovery—try not to laugh—Obama and his supporters have every reason to expect similar dismal results over the next 100 days. And over the 1,262 days after that.