Steve Chapman

About now, Barack Obama may be wondering why he thought it would be such fun to serve a second term rather than go lounge on a beach in Hawaii. Life in the White House has become a daily ordeal of pain and frustration. Nothing is going well.

On the foreign front, he has to contend with an aggressive Vladimir Putin, an unsuccessful war in Afghanistan and his failure to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Domestically, he has to endure a Department of Veterans Affairs scandal, an underperforming economy, a health care overhaul whose ultimate success is in doubt, House hearings on Benghazi, and an inability to get Congress to do anything he wants.

In the international arena, as a news story in The Chicago Tribune recently noted, the president has been compelled to adopt a "measured, even incremental, approach to most foreign crises and challenges, from Iran's nuclear program to Syria's grinding war." Instead of trying to do great things, he's settled for a policy that his aides summarize as "Don't do stupid stuff" -- though they use a different word than "stuff."

Here at home, Obama is looking for ways to act entirely on his own in areas where he can't get Congress to move -- such as declining to deport foreigners who grew up in the United States after coming illegally as children and curbing greenhouse gas emissions through Environmental Protection Agency rules.

His executive actions, decried by Republicans as incipient dictatorship, betray weakness, not strength. Presidents don't scale back their ambitions because they want to; they do it because they have to. Obama is stymied on Capitol Hill because he lacks the political power or popular standing to get his way.

But as John McCain is fond of saying, it's all darkest just before it goes totally black. A year from now, the president may look back at 2014 with fond nostalgia.

That's because however limited his power and influence in Washington, they're about to shrink. The party out of power almost always makes gains in midterm congressional elections. The GOP, which already controls the House by a large margin, expects to gain at least a few seats in November, and it has plausible hopes of winning a Senate majority.

In that case, a Congress that has been uncooperative would become immovable -- taking gridlock and discarding the key.

If you prefer the federal government to do less rather than more, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you like inaction, you'll be content. Neither side is likely to have the capacity to get its way.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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