Obama needs to act

It is only six months into his second term and President Obama is playing the lame duck.

From U.S. involvement in Syria to containment of Iran’s nuclear program, passage of comprehensive immigration reform to a debt-ceiling increase, or a smooth landing for his unpopular healthcare program, Obama’s immediate governing challenges seem far less interesting or urgent to him than his legacy wish list. What else could explain the fact that he is talking about tackling climate change and reducing nuclear arsenals when there is little to no political viability for either goal?

It is convenient to explain away Obama’s current posture as stylistic: the same long-view, no-drama manner he has always brought to the job of leader of the free world. Yet being aware that he isn’t likely to accomplish much after, say, this fall, when the congressional midterm campaigns begin, it’s startling that Obama still appears so passive.

The president may believe all is well, but his approval rating has dropped considerably since winning reelection last year. In just a few weeks, Americans have learned the government can collect limitless data — inadvertently or otherwise — on all of us, watched markets rattle over fears the Federal Reserve could even consider a stimulus slowdown in a jobless recovery, and witnessed the Chinese and the Russians laugh us off as Edward Snowden slithers around the globe and the U.S. government sits powerless, hoping someone will ship him back here. The president’s attempt to talk Russian President Vladimir Putin into some cooperation in Syria, where Obama was finally forced to aid the opposition against the Assad regime, fell embarrassingly flat two weeks ago. Days later he pledged at the Brandenburg Gate to ask the Russians to participate in a nuclear weapons reduction they have no interest in. Now, Putin’s poking Obama in the eye by harboring Snowden, who leaked our secrets and jeopardized our security, as potential for a growing regional Middle East conflict increases by the day.  

Meanwhile ObamaCare is raising premiums — as well as anxiety — as the clocks ticks toward full implementation in January, but exchanges scheduled to start enrolling people Oct. 1 in more than 30 states are not on track to begin on time. Though Obama has worked to help immigration reform pass the Congress, at a silent distance requested by the bill’s proponents, it might be for naught. Victory would represent an enormous accomplishment for the president, but given the prospects in the GOP House, victory has begun to look like fantasy.

In the wake of investigations of wrongdoing by the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service, Obama is surely aware the public’s lack of trust in government has reached crisis levels, but the minimal amount of time he has spent addressing or assuring the public makes him appear indifferent.

It is not that the policy issues Obama highlights — gun control, gay rights, equal pay, widening income inequality, infrastructure investments, cutting nuclear weapons and preparing for climate change — are not worthy of his effort. They are. But with the time he has left as president, and the possibility Republicans could control more of the Congress in 2015 than they do now, it is curious that Obama isn’t focusing more on what he can do, and must do, instead of what he wants to do. This fall the president will ask Congress for an increase in the debt ceiling, a debate that two years ago brought the country to the edge of default. Yet there is no more hope for tax reform or entitlement reform than there was when paralysis in 2011 produced the sequester.

President Obama owns all these problems and he needs to act on them.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.