President Obama: Flounderer-in-chief?

The Week
President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the University of Cape Town on June 30 in South Africa.
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President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the University of Cape Town on June 30 in South Africa.

This is not a president who is in command of events. Events are in command of him.

Six months into his new term, President Obama should be feeling pretty good. After all, the economy is looking up and Americans are more confident about their prospects. The job market is healing and housing prices are up double-digits over the past year. New cars are rolling out of showrooms at the fastest pace in nearly six years. There's nothing like that new car smell.

Yet to many folks in Washington and around the country, a different odor is discernible: It's one of panic, they say, the smell of a president who is floundering. He seems to know it himself.

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"I sure do wanna do some governing," Obama said at a recent fundraiser. "I wanna get some stuff done. I've only got three and a half years left, and it goes by (snaps his fingers) like that."

Most Americans wanna see some governing too. We wanna see some stuff get done. But we haven't, at least not yet. For a man who claims to have an acute awareness of time, the president has an inexplicable knack for wasting it.

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Tick tock: He spent the first four months of his new term fighting for gun control, an emotionally driven response to an issue of undeniable importance. But (and with the utmost respect to the victims of gun violence) it is not an issue on par with the number one concern for the vast majority of Americans: jobs and the economy. The White House has also been in reactive mode to the IRS mess, and the revelation that the government is tracking our phone calls, email, and snail mail. On top of that came a quiet news dump, deliberately timed to occur as the 4th of July weekend was getting underway, that the employer provision in ObamaCare, the president's crowning domestic achievement thus far, was being delayed until after the 2014 midterms.

Then there is the cascading series of problems overseas. In March, it was North Korea and its threats to attack us. In June, unrest swept our close NATO ally, Turkey. Now, it's Egypt's turn for turmoil. And throughout, of course, there has been Syria. The president warned there would be repercussions if the Assad regime crossed the "red line" and used chemical weapons on its own people. A month ago the White House said the line had been crossed. But a month has passed and anti-Assad rebels complain they haven't gotten the weapons they were promised. Tick tock.

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This is not a president who is in command of events. Events are in command of him.

The polls reflect growing disappointment with the president. Thursday's Real Clear Politics average of all recent polls puts Obama's approval at 44.6 percent, his lowest standing in a year and a half.

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To put this in context, Obama is well below most other two-term presidents at this point in their second term. In July 1957, Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed an approval rating of 65 percent. In July 1985, Ronald Reagan stood at 63 percent. Six months into his second term, Bill Clinton had a 58 percent approval, and even George W. Bush, in July 2005 (just before Hurricane Katrina and the economic collapse dragged him down), was at 49 percent. The only two-term predecessor Obama tops is Richard Nixon, who in July 1973 was at 39 percent and falling in his Watergate death spiral.

Of course, Obama is quick to blame Republicans, particularly in the House, for many of his problems, and that's a fair point. As low as Obama has sunk in the polls, Congress' job approval — at 13.6 percent according to the Real Clear Politics average — remains mired at friends and family levels, and lawmakers in general are universally despised and disrespected. By this standard, Obama doesn't look so bad.

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But Obama will ultimately be measured by his accomplishments, not how he stacks up against his enemies. Presidents are the ones who set the tone and set the agenda for the nation. This, when done right, is leadership. Americans always look to their president to provide it. Obama's fed up with Republican obstructionism? Fine: Go on TV and call them out. Challenge John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to debate immigration, climate change, and spending in a townhall-style setting. If they refuse, use it against them. Obama, aloof and insular — and convinced he's smarter than everyone else — would never get his hands dirty like this. But a change in tactics, in demeanor — something — is needed because whatever it is he's doing now doesn't seem to be working.

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