A president is in trouble when he’s forced to defend his relevancy, as Bill Clinton did 18 years ago, or to quote Mark Twain, as Barack Obama did Tuesday. “Rumors of my demise,” he said at a news conference, “may be a little exaggerated at this point.”
Not wrong–just “exaggerated.” Not forever–just “at this point.”
Parsing aside, Obama channeled Clinton’s April 18, 1995, news conference by projecting a sense of helplessness–or even haplessness–against forces seemingly out of a president’s control.
For Clinton, it was ascendant House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the GOP’s takeover of Congress five months prior, a vote of no-confidence for the first-term Democratic president. “The president is relevant here,” Clinton insisted in the East Room.
For Obama, his nemesis is a far-less charismatic and influential House Speaker John Boehner, as well as the intense weight of structural problems that favor Washington gridlock. These include the Senate filibuster, hyper-partisan House districts, polarized media outlets, and a fast-changing electorate that is sorting itself in political tribes.
“So my question to you,” ABC reporter Jonathan Karl asked Obama, “is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through Congress?”
Ouch. “Well, if you put it that way, Jonathan,” Obama quipped, “maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly.” Then he quoted the humorist Twain, who famously denied his death.
As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, a president’s powers to fix problems are limited. That is certainly the case on an issue such as Syria, where Obama has no good options, and doing nothing in response to evidence of genocide is probably his worst alternative.
“When I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapons use,” Obama said in response to a reporter’s question, “I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.”