Obama wants sympathy (and your vote)

Despite the aggravating, embarrassing and at times hilarious similarities, Washington is not an elementary school.

There are no ribbons given out here for participation or effort.

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In fact, anything short of championships or big deals that solve problems, and the American people look upon Washington with well-deserved disdain.

For President Obama and his Chicago campaign team, that presents two enormous problems:

1. “I tried” does not make for a winning bumper sticker. 

2. It’s hard to run against Washington when you’re part of the problem.

On the first matter, Obama already is shifting message. In a matter of days, he has gone from mad-as-hell-and-not-gonna-take-it-anymore Obama, during an impromptu Friday night appearance at the White House briefing room, to Professor Obama, calmly explaining during a primetime address Monday why House Republicans won’t let him do big things.

Had Obama won the “big deal” on the debt ceiling, the White House would have been justified in seeing the election as all but over. Killing Osama bin Laden and getting the country’s fiscal house in order? Hard to beat that.

Instead, he gets to run the kind of campaign that everybody hates: a prolonged blame game that inspires nobody and leaves the country with even less faith than it had in Washington before.

Obama deserves credit for trying here. So does House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

They both got in the boat together. But when it hit a mine, Boehner, who never had completely moved on accepting tax increases as part of a deal, had more people to swim out and save him. Obama, who had agreed to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, angered Democrats in the process and went down with the ship. 

The president still can run on big things: healthcare, bin Laden, Wall Street reform. But America is about “What have you done for me lately?” And on this matter, Obama couldn’t get it done.

The question then becomes, does he get credit for trying or does he get lumped in with the rest of the Island of Unlovable Misfit Toys inside the Beltway?

Because the sad truth is that hope and change have come up short. 

Washington still is a swamp where politics prevents problem-solving, and there now appears little hope of that changing.

The House Republicans who were sent here to fix Washington last November have instead come to finish it off.

They make for a good foil for Obama as a candidate. But they make for even better downfield blockers for whoever wins the Republican nomination. 

Former Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R-Mass.) silence during this debate would be criminal if politics were still about problem-solving, but he probably was smart not to get infected by the ridiculous theatrics of people who actually are responsible for getting things done — and even smarter to recognize early on that this battle would produce only losers.

Obama doesn’t have the luxury of staying on the sidelines. He has been in this up to his ears, and he gets the blame, just as everyone else does.

And maybe he deserves sympathy. He came to fix Washington, and he couldn't do it. 

But voters don’t reward effort. They reward results and punish failure.

And the only thing they hate more than failure is whining about it.

Democratic strategists see a small opening here for Obama. By wading into the lion’s den, he has shown America that he will fight Washington even if it leaves him bruised and bloodied.

“There’s a fine balance to walk here between being seen as pushing/trying/fighting for it and then whining afterward if you don’t get it,”  one strategist said.

Not exactly the stuff campaign managers dream about.

But in some ways, Obama is getting the campaign debate he wants. Are there any independents out there who will come away from this disaster not believing Republicans only care about protecting tax cuts for the rich?

“This is going to end up being a cuts-only deal and the campaign will be fought on the issue of tax breaks for the wealthy, so Obama indeed comes out ahead,” a strategist said.

It’s true. Obama is still the favorite, and he still can win reelection. But it doesn’t look as if he ever will beat Washington.

He can only audaciously hope he gets points for fighting it. 

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.