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A.B. Stoddard: An impotent president

As he faces plummeting approval ratings, wars in Europe and the Middle East and a border crisis that has prompted talk of impeachment, it may be time to ask what it is that President Obama wants.

Although he is now considering airstrikes to contain escalating violence in Iraq, which the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is seeking to topple, Obama is closing in on his last two years in office seeming — on balance — increasingly removed from the urgency of burgeoning crises overseas, as well as what once was an aggressive domestic agenda. We are no longer sure of which of our many problems he wants to solve, or which he would take a risk to lead on. 

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After enacting historic financial and healthcare reforms in his first term and kicking his second term off with an ambitious, liberal inaugural address, Obama’s current plans for his last two years as president are far from clear, even to members of his own party. In the event Republicans take control of the Senate after this fall’s elections, just what Obama would or could do next is currently beyond the imagination. Will he fight hard to raise the minimum wage? Will he enact more sweeping environmental regulations by executive action? Does he want to legislate anymore? Obama doesn’t seem animated by a single issue these days, nor does he seem prepared to alter the political landscape. Republicans long ago give up on engaging with the president, and he has also shown no interest in fixing a broken relationship between the two co-equal branches of government.

It still may be he would like to move beyond the partisan wars that marked most of his tenure thus far — an unpopular healthcare law passed only by Democrats, budget fights that nearly brought the country to default, the failure to make even nominal progress on immigration reform. Perhaps he wants to change the storyline, creating a legacy as the “post-partisan” figure he promised to be in his 2008 campaign for the White House. That could involve a fiscal deal including tax reforms or an entitlement overhaul, education or energy reform. Then again, it’s almost unthinkable. What if Democrats hang on to a majority in the Senate by a seat or two? Can we expect more of nothing? 

During Obama’s presidency the world has become more unstable than at any point at in his lifetime, yet his leadership is more than risk averse — he has admitted he is basing decisions on the hope things don’t get worse. In his press conference Wednesday night, Obama was asked about the warning from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that Russian Vladimir Putin is amassing more troops on the border of eastern Ukraine for what is likely a full-scale invasion; he spoke in the conditional tense about coming to the aid of the Ukrainians, as if he could worry about all of it later. “If you start seeing an invasion by Russia, that’s obviously a different set of questions. We’re not there yet ... we will continue to work with them [Ukraine] to evaluate on a day-to-day, week-by-week basis what exactly they need in order to defend their country and to deal with the separatist elements that currently are being armed by Russia.” Given that Russians have already invaded Crimea, Obama was ultimately saying he won’t respond unless and until they invade eastern Ukraine as well. On the subject of the war between the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza, Obama said twice Wednesday, “I have no sympathy for Hamas,” as if he was speaking about a party in a divorce settlement and not a terrorist organization.

Certainly the president has grown comfortable, becoming a bystander not only in the war in Gaza, in which the United States has never had less leverage or influence. But by refusing to move beyond sanctions to contain Putin, Obama knows GOP presidential candidates and Hillary Clinton will soon move to fill the void early next year as these same crises continue, at best, or, worse, deteriorate.

Yet as Obama seems disinterested in leading not only on the world stage or at home, he and his advisers have recently spent considerable energy talking about impeachment. They have been joined by national Democrats feverishly raising money off the spectacle of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin pushing impeachment because a lawsuit congressional Republicans have filed against the president simply isn’t adequate. It all makes for a great distraction, as polling shows the nation firmly against both the lawsuit and impeachment, and it’s always entertaining to watch the GOP shoot itself in the stomach. But the fact that Obama would even risk the small chance Republicans move to commit political suicide by impeaching him is worse than unseemly.

Unlike the early years, when Obama wouldn’t stop talking about his plans, he may now be keeping them to himself. Or even more frightening, perhaps he doesn’t know what he wants to do.

 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.