Obama and the quicksand summer

It’s not as bad as it looks for President Obama.

It’s much, much worse. 

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July and August are looking like a summer of quicksand for the president, and there is nobody left to throw him a rope.

The more he kicks, the farther he sinks.

It’s still way too early to pronounce Obama’s reelection hopes dead. But this is either the low point before the comeback or the beginning of the end.

And really, it could go either way.

The tailspin scenario is easy enough to envision: A double-dip recession combined with the continued assault from House Republicans means all GOP front-runner Mitt Romney has to do is remember to put on pants, and he walks into the Oval Office in January 2013.

At this moment, that’s where the smart money is. 

The president is weak, and seems to be getting weaker by the day. And any pushback from the White House that suggests the leader of the free world didn’t just get pushed around by 86 House freshmen is likely to fall on deaf ears. 


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Voters won’t sympathize, because it’s no longer enough for Obama to say repeatedly that he tried to compromise with people who made clear they have no interest in joining him. 

Inside the White House, officials believe Obama’s calm persona is vital during turbulent times, and they think voters will reward Obama for keeping cool and continuing in his quest for compromise. 

Outside the White House, that sounds like an admirable recipe for defeat. While compromise is necessary and desirable, Obama is the only person in town who thinks it’s possible to work across the aisle in these times. 

Obama’s weakness is in part the result of a calculating legislative strategy that probably made a lot of sense in theory: Put out the ideas and try to shape the results from 30,000 feet, but let Congress take the heat and the blame for the actual sausage-making.

During the healthcare debate, folks in Washington thought the president had simply over-learned the lessons of the Clintons.

But over time, the strategy and the calculation behind it became clear: Obama didn’t want to get his hands dirty because he wanted to run against Washington.

It made sense. Don’t get bogged down in the mud of a town that was already dysfunctional even before a demolition team was sent in to blow up what was left.

But disdain for Obama from the right that thinks he’s a socialist, and the left that thinks he’s a wimp has made it clear that he owns Washington as much as he owns the anemic economy.

If there ever was a time for Obama to stand up and start playing the hard-nosed bully, this is it. House Republicans just made him fight to the death over something as routine as the debt ceiling.

They won’t give him an inch, and his would-be opponents have no trouble disappearing during critical debates, only to reappear with an I-told-you-so.

If Obama wants anything, he is going to have to take it.

But no matter how much the professional left would love it, that doesn’t mean he should stuff House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in a locker or punch Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the gut.

It means jobs. It means fighting for jobs. It means leaving every ounce of blood, sweat and tears on the street and demonstrating to Americans that this is about them and their happiness.

“The president needs a relentless push of jobs and economic growth policies,” Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said. “Make the GOP vote against them.”

Simmons said the president should continue to press for an extension of the payroll-tax break, extended unemployment benefits and a new infrastructure bank.

“Americans need to see the same effort on jobs as we saw on raising the debt,” he said.

Another Democratic strategist concurred, saying Obama has to make his August Midwest bus tour count by wrapping it around plans that will either put people to work or convince people to hate Republican obstructionism.

“He has to do something,” the strategist said. “And his public appearances are hurting him.”

At this point it’s hard to see Obama doing anything that halts his freefall. Like a great boxer, Obama has an impressive win column, but the damage from fighting is permanent.

“He could help himself by demonstrating dynamic leadership, the type that shows people he is the captain of the ship and can navigate in these strong winds,” said Larry Berman, a political scientist at the University of California-Davis. 

“If not, we’ll soon have a new captain. Desperate times require an un-Obama demonstration of leadership. Not sure he has it in him, but we’ll find out soon.”

The simple truth these days is that Obama is reeling, sinking in the quicksand.

And this is the part where he either starts to climb out, or says goodnight and quietly sinks farther and deeper until not even one gray hair is visible. 

But anything in between, any half-hearted struggle or time wasted bemoaning compromises that never came to pass, and the president will only sink faster.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.