Is Obama’s presidency adrift?

Critics are intensifying their focus on a sense of drift afflicting the Obama White House on topics as diverse as Ukraine and the Keystone XL pipeline.

Liberal commentators, such as The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd, have recently added their voices to longstanding criticism from conservatives.

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The White House cannot dismiss the critiques because they go hand-in-hand with some of the lowest approval ratings of President Obama’s tenure. The Real Clear Politics polling average has President Obama at 44.4 percent approval and 51.6 percent disapproval.

“Absolutely, there is a sense that he’s adrift, and his approval ratings suggest many Americans are no longer content with his job performance,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.  “He has big problems right now.”

Dowd addressed Obama directly in two recent columns, saying “It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world” and accusing him of being “stalled on every front.” 

The president seems to have little chance of passing significant legislation. Some critics say he is not even trying to do so. Obama is no longer using his reelection mandate to govern, they say, but rather using the tools of government to build a campaign platform to help Democrats in their battle not to lose their Senate majority in the midterm elections.

Obama’s supporters say he is not to blame and has been thwarted by a rare amount of obstruction from congressional Republicans. In foreign policy, they argue, the president faces intractable problems such as conflict in Ukraine, where there is no easy solution, and the administration is playing a bad hand as well as can be expected.

“It would be great if the president had a magic wand, but what are the other solutions that the critics would pursue?” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane asked. “Sometimes, this is like the difference between playing fantasy baseball with your friends and managing a real team. When you’re doing it for real, there are a lot of hard problems.”

Obama won election in 2008 partly by offering himself as the political and temperamental antithesis of his predecessor, President George W. Bush. But just as Bush was laid low by the middle of his second term by Hurricane Katrina, an abortive push for Social Security reform and massive bloodshed in Iraq, so Obama is afflicted on several fronts.

A push for gun control, launched by one of Obama’s most powerful speeches after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., went nowhere. Immigration reform looks uncertain. And efforts to increase the minimum wage and extend unemployment insurance are bogged down in Congress. Simultaneously, Washington’s efforts to nudge Israel and the Palestinians toward a peace deal have sputtered, while the goal of ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad seems unrealistic.

It’s not all gloom for Obama. Democrats may be right in claiming that ObamaCare has turned a corner, with impressive enrollment and, so far, few of the big problems predicted by critics.

Exhibit A for the case that Obama is now governing to campaign rather than campaigning to govern is the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. The project is a dangerous proposition for Democrats due to support among labor unions and vehement opposition from environmentalists. The question of whether to allow the project has persisted over much of the Obama presidency, but a final decision is now probably delayed until after the midterms.

“The delay itself gives the impression that he is thinking more about politics than policy and that he is hesitating,” said Zelizer. “Does the president support something or not? What a lot of people conclude is that the politics is difficult and he doesn’t want to roil things for Democrats. But for some Americans, that’s exactly when we expect a leader to make hard decisions, even when there is a political cost.”

Even if punting on Keystone is purely political and invites derision, that does not mean the gambit is doomed to failure.

“It’s the politics of cowardice, which might also be the politics of electoral victory,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communication. “The fact is that in this highly politically charged environment, your goal is to win. And to make any kind of tough political decision can complicate that.”

Republicans, such as strategist Ron Bonjean, believe Obama and the Democrats are now wholly on election footing, with policy goals no longer on their real agenda.

“On the minimum wage, for instance, they are using that as a pure political play to motivate parts of their base. Instead of working with Republicans and allowing them to offer incentives around job creation, the Democrats have put forward this Hail Mary pass,” Bonjean said. “They want to have the issue; they don’t want to have the solution.”

Democrats insist that second term blues are normal and that the political pendulum will swing back.

“I can predict with near-certainty that sometime in the future I’ll be getting calls about how Obama has got his mojo back,” Lehane said. “That’s the kind of media environment that we live in.

“I feel like being president now is a bit like whitewater rafting,” he continued. “There’ll be times when you hit the rocks and there’ll be times when you pick up speed. But if you keep the boat upright and keep padding in a generally forward direction, you’ll be OK.”