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POLITICS: PennAve

Obama's six-year itch

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Immigration,Barack Obama,2014 Elections,PennAve,Approval Ratings,Magazine

With all the drama in the world, this would seem a good time for No Drama Obama to roll up his sleeves and get everyone to chill. But President Obama doesn't seem to be thinking much about work.

So says a growing contingent in Washington, including Democrats, as Obama appears content to run out the clock on his White House tenure.

Crises are cascading overseas and his domestic agenda is going nowhere, but the president stubbornly refuses to adjust his priorities, sticking to fundraisers, photo-ops and ritual denouncements of Congress.

With Gaza in flames, a shot-down passenger jet escalating the crisis in Ukraine and tens of thousands of unaccompanied children streaming across the border, Obama chose to head out West for fundraisers and is scheduled to leave Aug. 9 for a 16-day vacation on tony Martha's Vineyard.

The president and his family will stay at a $12 million beachfront estate, complete with a pool, hot tub, basketball and tennis courts -- and plenty of golfing opportunities.

A president once credited for keeping the long view and staying above the political fray is now being called detached and uninterested in using the tools of his office to resurrect a second term plagued by mishaps.

Still months away from the midterm elections, even Obama's allies question whether the man who pledged to change Washington can get anything done -- or is simply resigned to lame-duck status.

“He looks like he's on auto-pilot,” one House Democratic lawmaker complained as Obama left town for three days of fundraisers. “The bear is loose. He needs to be reminded to come back.”

Added a Senate Democrat: “I don't get what the White House is doing right now. It's political malpractice.”

Such frustrations have been building for some time, flaring up when the White House brushed off the botched rollout of Obamacare, the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups and the uproar over National Security Agency surveillance techniques, among other controversies.

But with the downing of a plane carrying 283 passengers over Ukraine, casualties mounting in the bloody standoff between Israel and Hamas, Iraq and Syria enmeshed in civil war that may leave behind a terrorist haven, and border-security flaws exposed by the surge of illegal crossings from Central America, Obama's managerial style is coming under attack like never before.

The commander in chief chose not to visit the southwest border while in Texas but made time to play pool, drink beer, scarf down pizza and do fundraisers. When news broke about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 being shot down, the president ate a cheeseburger in Delaware and headlined fundraisers in New York City.

With much of the international community calling for Obama to put greater pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin for his aggression in Ukraine -- and coddling of separatist groups -- the president spent most of his week raising money on the West Coast. In its only concession to critics, the White House scrapped a planned appearance on late-night television, acknowledging the “challenges” of doing a comedy show during “serious” times.

To many political observers, the Ukrainian crisis presented Obama with the perfect opportunity to exert his influence. Yet Obama's playbook for dealing with Putin hasn't changed much since the Russian president annexed Crimea.

“Putin is on the ropes, why would you not use this opportunity to pummel him morning, noon and night?” wondered University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

The optics invited comparisons to President George W. Bush, who was pilloried for flying over storm-ravaged New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But Obama aides resist such comparisons, scoffing at the out-of-touch label.

“The fact of the matter is, the president, like most professionals, has the capability to deal with more than one priority at a time, and particularly, somebody who has the trappings of the presidency alongside him,” insisted White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “He's got his own airplane. He's got dedicated phone lines. He has senior advisers who will be accompanying him every step of the way to make sure that he has access to the information and technology necessary to represent American interests in the midst of these challenging international times.”

But it’s not just Obama’s crisis management that has many people on edge. Judging from his recent remarks, the president has abandoned any hope of striking deals with the Republican-controlled House, daring them to “sue me” and accusing conservatives of wanting only to “block me and call me names.”

Republican leaders say Obama already has a bad case of senioritis.

“It wasn't like this with Clinton or with Bush, they both had a very effective legislative team -- they came, they fought, they worked for things,” House Majority Leader-Elect Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in an interview. “Obama's strategy is to do a message of the week. He's never good about follow-through. [The presidency] is not a 9-to-5-job.”

Obama sees executive actions as the clearest path to bolstering his legacy, as he prepares a unilateral blueprint on immigration reform in the face of congressional gridlock. White House officials point to those actions and a series of recent executive orders on the economy, LGBT rights and environmental policies as proof that he's engaged in the job -- just not in the way demanded by Republicans.

That attitude, conservatives counter, is indicative of a take-it-or-leave-it approach that has contributed to Obama’s tanking marks with voters and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The president's approval ratings are hovering around 40 percent, and a majority of voters find him both untrustworthy and incompetent, numerous polls have found.

“There's no question that the American people and their elected representatives don't trust the president to enforce the law as written. He's got a lot of work to do to repair that trust,” Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told the Washington Examiner.

“There are a number of things we can do: trade agreements, tax reform, rolling back onerous regulations,” Boehner added. “We hope the president will work with us on all of that.”

In addition to all the other problems confronting the president, now he has to worry about the legality of Obamacare, his signature domestic initiative, after a three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a critical piece of the health care law, ruling that millions of people enrolled in federal health exchanges in 36 states are not eligible for government subsidies.

Sabato said Obama's political headache is rooted in a communication failure by the White House.

“The people have gotten this sense of Obama: He’s very frustrated — it’s like he’s just going through the motions of his presidency. I don’t think he’s part of the equation in a lot of major political debates,” he contended.

With the very real possibility of Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress in his final two years, Obama could be forced to re-evaluate how he deals with lawmakers or get his veto pen ready.

Perhaps even more consequential is whether Obama's own party will tune him out, as Republicans did with George W. Bush, particularly since Democrats are gearing up for a possible Hillary Clinton White House bid.

Democrats have "always been in a bind, they’ve had this very tense relationship with Obama from day one,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “Early on, they were in the position of defending policies not in their electoral interest. You can separate yourself from the president now.”

It’s an unwelcome turn of events for Obama, who was brilliant campaigning for the White House but constrained and somewhat bored once he attained it.

Team Obama now must expend more resources defending the president’s relevance. And Obama’s supporters are still waiting for a political recovery promised after the president stumbled following an ambitious second Inaugural Address.

“Maybe I should just pack up and go home,” Obama quipped 100 days into his second term, channeling Mark Twain by insisting, “Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated.”

How would Obama describe his clout now?

“If he were being honest,” the House Democrat mused, “‘it was fun while it lasted.’”

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Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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