His second term is coming undone not because of scandal but because of decisions made in the previous four years.
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.
President Obama after speaking at a fundraising event in Chicago, May 29.
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.