The Bystander Presidency Still Running On Empty

Posted: Apr 23, 2014 12:01 AM
The Bystander Presidency Still Running On Empty

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration has officially entered the twilight zone, searching in vain for a new focus in its remaining two and a half years.

President Obama has been trying to look busy in recent weeks, giving speeches to rally his dispirited party as he voices new fears that Democrats will not turn out to vote in the midterm congressional elections in November. Apparently, many of them won't.

"Our voters... get excited about general elections," he said at a recent Democratic fundraiser in Houston. "They don't get excited about midterm elections."

The Washington news media is worried about it, too. A story on the front page of the Washington Post on Sunday ran under the headline, "Democrats' biggest worry: Will their voters show up?" Apparently, many won't.

If rank-and-file Democrats do not increase their usually weak midterm election turnout, "Obama could spend the final years of his presidency battling not only a Republican House but also a Republican Senate," writes the Post's chief political reporter Dan Balz.

Actually, Obama's problems are even deeper than that. While he hasn't been able to get much of anything out of Capitol Hill since the GOP's 2010 takeover in the House, he has been utterly incapable of rallying his party, or the nation at large, behind any kind of galvanizing, second term agenda since his re-election.

So he busies himself with make-work tasks tailored to make himself look presidential, but with no real, sustained focus on the nation's unfinished business -- like the weak economy or persistently anemic job growth.

He held a defensive news conference last week to boast about the number of people signing up for Obamacare, a job that a busy president would have routinely handed off to his Cabinet secretary.

But Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is suddenly leaving her post after presiding over Obamacare's bungled rollout and other troubles. Besides, Obama needed something to do that day.

So what's on his remaining agenda? And does he really have one beyond defending Obamacare which will be one of the central political issues in this fall's elections.

That politically embarrassing question was the target of a blistering criticism by the Post's editorial cartoonist Tom Toles on Tuesday. It showed Uncle Sam sitting on a couch next to a reporter in a "waiting room" with two calendars on the wall: One was labeled "Last Election" and the other "Next Election."

Uncle Sam, impatiently looking at his watch, tells the reporter, with his notebook in hand, "The awkward period when we don't know what to say or do is almost over."

Is the Post, who enthusiastically endorsed Obama in both 2008 and 2012, now turning on him? It seems to be, as it characterizes the U.S., under Obama, as incapable of knowing what to say or do next in a world that is facing a sea of troubles -- for fear of worsening his party's tenuous political situation in November.

Vladimir Putin's armies are massing on the Ukrainian border, threatening to march into its eastern region and seize another large chunk of a vulnerable nation fighting for its political survival. But the Obama administration can't seem to follow through on its threats to make Russia pay for its military aggression against a weak sovereign nation.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Putin that the Russian operatives who have taken control of up to a dozen government centers in eastern Ukraine must "lay down their arms [and] leave the buildings."

If they do not do so by the weekend "then we will have no choice but to impose further costs on Russia," Kerry said. Now that deadline has come and gone and Putin has escalated its threats, warning Kiev that Russia may have to send its forces in to protect Russian-speaking citizens.

"For weeks Mr. Obama has held back on forceful measures against Mr. Putin's aggression in Ukraine on the theory that a measured approach matched with diplomacy would yield results," the Post lectured the White House in its lead ["The Ukraine dither"] editorial Tuesday.

"Now Mr. Obama must act -- or doom Ukraine to dismemberment," the newspaper said.

But making key decisions and acting in timely manner is not in Obama's nature, as we saw last week when the White House once again postponed a decision on giving the green light to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline linking Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Fearing that any decision now to approve the project would anger his party's environmental activists, Obama has given eight separate federal agencies an additional 90 days to submit its recommendations.

Thousands of potential jobs are at stake in this long-delayed energy development project. But that issue has been dismissed time and again by this White House solely on political grounds as the November elections draw near.

The State Department now says it needs more time to consider 2.5 million public comments submitted as of March 7. You can imagine how long that's going to take.

In a statement, Russ Girling, TransCanada's chief executive officer, said that if the pipeline is not completed, the U.S. will have to purchase more of its crude oil from "suspect and aggressive foreign leaders." And transport more Canadian oil by rail that would increase the danger of environmentally damaging spills.

"Not building Keystone XL is a lose, lose, lose scenario any way you look at it," Girling said.

Obama has blocked the oil pipeline's completion every step of the way, causing Robert J. Samuelson, the Post's economics columnist, to call the president's actions, "an act of national insanity."

Meantime, the president seems content to devote the rest of his time in office giving speeches that will be little noted, nor long remembered, attending conferences on the world stage, dodging difficult decisions and running out the calendar.

What he can't dodge is the next election which is turning into a nationwide referendum on a do nothing presidency.