But the bad economy isn't the only hurdle. Clinton's race to the center was a return to form. He beat George H.W. Bush by running as a centrist Southern Democrat who supported the death penalty, wanted to "end welfare as we know it" and was eager to zing his own base if it would earn him a second look from Reagan Democrats and others disillusioned with the party of McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis. His was a restoration, not a transformation.
I'm writing this before the final votes on the debt-limit deal, and I have no desire to tempt fate. But it seems that no matter how Obama gets out of this, he's left in a double bind. He desperately needs to make a new first impression because he cannot successfully run on a terrible economy, an unpopular health-care plan and a very confusing foreign policy at a time when most Americans are burned out on foreign policy.
But absent external events he cannot plan on, there's no way to credibly reinvent himself or even reintroduce himself as the guy who ran in 2008.
He can't revive his claim to be a post-partisan bridge-builder, can he? His first two years were as partisan as any we've seen in a generation. He certainly can't run on "Yes We Can!" optimism, particularly not after he's shown his willingness to force a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich," in the words of Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver, down the throats of his base. He cannot run as a gung-ho fiscal hawk, not when he contributed so much to the deficit. And he will never outbid the GOP nominee on shrinking government. If he tries, his base stays home.
Barring some tragic event outside his control, it's very hard to see what the man can do. He's got no place he can go, but he can't stay where he is.