Obama has a high-profile chance to step up and counter all that with strong, organized, consistent leadership in the budget and debt battles of the next few weeks. But he seized that opportunity prematurely -- deciding to go ahead and give his speech on Monday, the five-year anniversary of the financial crisis, despite the shooting incident.
In prefatory remarks, acknowledging the unfolding Navy Yard tragedy, Obama said: "We're going to be investigating thoroughly what happened, as we do so many of these shootings, sadly, that have happened, and do everything that we can to try to prevent them." Yet the incident itself was a reminder that he has been unable to win a single new gun restriction -- not even an expansion of gun-buyer background checks, supported by 80 to 90 percent in polls -- in the wake of last year's horrific school shooting in Newtown.
In some ways Obama's fifth year is typical of fifth years, when reelected presidents aim high and often fail. But in some ways it is atypical, notably in the number of failures, setbacks, and incompletes Obama has piled up. Gun control and immigration reform are stalled. Two Obama favorites withdrew their names as potential nominees in the face of congressional opposition -- Susan Rice, once a frontrunner for secretary of state, followed by Larry Summers, a top candidate to head the Federal Reserve. Secretary of State John Kerry's possibly offhand remark about Assad giving up his chemical weapons, and Putin's jump into the arena with a diplomatic proposal, saved him from almost certain defeat on Capitol Hill. Edward Snowden set the national-security establishment on its heels, then won temporary refuge from … Putin. It's far from clear how that will be resolved.
And that's as true for the budget and debt-limit showdowns ahead.
Some of Obama's troubles are due to the intransigence of House conservatives, and some may be inevitable in a world far less black and white than the one Reagan faced. But the impression of ineffectiveness is the same.
"People don't like it when circumstances are dictating the way in which a president behaves. They want him to be the one in charge," says Dallek, who has written books about nine presidents, including Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt. "It's unfair … On other hand that's what goes with the territory. People expect presidents to be in command, and they can't always be in command, and the public is not forgiving."
Obama's job approval numbers remain in the mid-40s. The farther they fall below 50 percent, history suggests, the worse he can expect Democrats to do in the midterm House and Senate elections next year. Obama would likely be in worse trouble with the public, at least in the short term, if he had pushed forward with a military strike in Syria. In fact, a new Pew Research Center poll shows 67 percent approve of Obama's switch to diplomacy. But his journey to that point made him look weak and indecisive.