A president is in trouble when he's forced to defend his relevancy, as Bill Clinton did 18 years ago, or to quote Mark Twain, as Barack Obama did Tuesday. "Rumors of my demise," he said at a news conference, "may be a little exaggerated at this point."
Not wrong--just "exaggerated." Not forever--just "at this point."
Parsing aside, Obama channeled Clinton's April 18, 1995, news conference by projecting a sense of helplessness--or even haplessness--against forces seemingly out of a president's control.
For Clinton, it was ascendant House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the GOP's takeover of Congress five months prior, a vote of no-confidence for the first-term Democratic president. "The president is relevant here," Clinton insisted in the East Room.
For Obama, his nemesis is a far-less charismatic and influential House Speaker John Boehner, as well as the intense weight of structural problems that favor Washington gridlock. These include the Senate filibuster, hyper-partisan House districts, polarized media outlets, and a fast-changing electorate that is sorting itself in political tribes.
"So my question to you," ABC reporter Jonathan Karl asked Obama, "is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through Congress?"
Ouch. "Well, if you put it that way, Jonathan," Obama quipped, "maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly." Then he quoted the humorist Twain, who famously denied his death.
As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, a president's powers to fix problems are limited. That is certainly the case on an issue such as Syria, where Obama has no good options, and doing nothing in response to evidence of genocide is probably his worst alternative.
"When I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapons use," Obama said in response to a reporter's question, "I've got to make sure I've got the facts."
He can't turn back time to stop the Boston Marathon bombings, or even to be sure that federal investigators did all they could to prevent the attack. "This is hard stuff," Obama said. And he's right. But the president risks losing the public's faith when he waves the white flag too often, especially on problems that can be fixed. Blaming the GOP and larger structural problems don't help the country, much less his legacy.
"We're in divided government right now," Obama told Karl. "Right now, things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill."
Later, the president noted that many Republicans can't make a deal with him because "compromise with me is somehow a betrayal" to conservative voters. On the "sequestration" spending cuts, passed by the GOP-controlled House and signed into law by Obama himself, the president incorrectly accused Karl of suggesting that Republicans have no responsibility "and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That's their job."
Later he said, "I cannot force Republicans to embrace those commonsense solutions."
On "Obamacare," the president complained that putting his signature achievement into place is hard because "you've got half of Congress who is determined to try to block implementation," as well as GOP governors who are also opposed. He seemed more sanguine on immigration reform but still equivocated. "We'll have to wait and see" whether Congress will follow his lead, Obama said.
Here is the problem: Even if you concede to Obama every point of his Tuesday news conference, a president looks weak and defeated when he shifts accountability to forces out of his control.
Clinton had a different problem 18 years ago, when a reporter asked whether he worried about "making sure your voice will be heard" over the obsessive media coverage suddenly given to Gingrich. "The Constitution gives me relevance," Clinton replied. "The power of our ideas gives me relevance. The record we have built up over the last two years and the things we're trying to do to implement it give it relevance." It was, by most accounts, the lowest point of the Clinton presidency. The next day, domestic terrorists bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and Clinton's strong response put him back on track for reelection in 1996.
This is where perceptions of Obama and Clinton differ. After the Boston bombings and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings (not to mention the assassination of Osama bin Laden), few voters would doubt Obama's ability to respond to crises. But with so much of his agenda stalled 100 days into his second term, Americans might wonder about his ability to simply govern. Judging from Tuesday's news conference, Obama has his doubts, too.