In 1994, the Republicans took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. The significance of that victory is hard for some younger people to appreciate, because we now seem to go through political leaders the way Lady Gaga goes through wardrobe changes. In the old days, it was a given that the House was the Democratic Party's fiefdom, which is why the Gingrich Revolution was such a tectonic shock. By the spring of 1995, Americans were talking as if we had suddenly adopted a parliamentary system with House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the prime minister. Really.
President Clinton was asked at a news conference if he were even relevant anymore. He responded: "The Constitution gives me relevance." Critics guffawed at first, because it set such a low bar, like raving about potted meat because it complies with the minimal government standards for human consumption. Didn't the president bring anything else to the table, other than the job description?
But Clinton was right. The presidency matters, period. Soon, Clinton had more going for him. The news conference after the Oklahoma City bombing gave him an opening, and the rebounding economy gave him a wind at his back.
In 2010, President Obama's party suffered from an even worse "shellacking" in the House than Clinton's had in 1994. Few asked whether Obama was still relevant, in part because the Democrats still held the Senate, but also because we had learned from Clinton that it's a silly question.
And that's what is amazing about Obama's presidency right now. It is almost entirely pro forma. Save for a few marginal exceptions (like an overly sympathetic media and the loyalty of Senate Democrats), his place in American politics rests entirely with what the job brings to him and not what he brings to it.
Obama seems incapable of moving public opinion, at least among people who don't already agree with him. You can tell his handlers have noticed because his talking points have become top-heavy with jargon freshly minted from focus groups: corporate jet owners, "winning the future," raising revenue instead of raising taxes, etc.
Similarly, his shopworn rhetoric has become more desperate. On July 5, he said of the debt-ceiling negotiations, "It's my hope ... that we'll all leave our political rhetoric at the door." The next day he insisted that "the debt ceiling should not be ... used as a gun against the heads of the American people to extract tax breaks for corporate jet owners, for oil and gas companies that are making billions of dollars because the price of gasoline has gone up so high."