The question of the hour may be this: Is President Barack Obama a weak president, or does he merely have a weak hand? Or – different question entirely – is he a strong president with a weak political profile?
More than five years ago, when he was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize a mere eight months in office, all these questions would have been inconceivable. He was the matinee idol of the world, a break-through president with a golden tongue and the golden touch.
But in the last several months, he has been outmanoeuvred twice by Vladimir Putin and now, with the American midterm congressional elections less than eight months away, he is a powerful election force – for the Republicans, not for his own Democratic Party. It is his rivals, rather than his onetime supporters, who will be putting his face on television commercials, the goal being to attract votes for candidates who will oppose the president.
The Democrats' prospects are darkening this spring. Just this month, the Republicans took a special congressional by-election in Florida when the Republicans, with a candidate so feckless that many party grandees mocked him to reporters, attached the president like Velcro to the Democratic candidate in a district that Mr. Obama won twice.
That was the first bad sign. The second was the decision in recent days by a one-time Republican senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, to muscle back into the Capitol by crossing state lines and running against an established Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen, in New Hampshire. Ms. Shaheen has been a prominent political figure in the state for 30 years, since she engineered a stunning upset victory for Gary Hart, in the state's presidential primary. Since then she has been a governor and senator. Now she is on the defensive as she seeks another Senate term.
It's been nine months since Mr. Obama's approval ratings have exceeded his disapproval ratings, and now more than half the country disapproves of his performance as chief executive. That's more than just a personal downer. The Obama Effect is endangering the Democratic control of the Senate, a vital party redoubt in Washington, where the Republicans control the House.
If the Republicans were to control both houses of Congress, Mr. Obama's prospects for moving his priorities would be even slimmer than they are today.
Right now Democratic candidates around the United States are trying to localize, not nationalize, the November elections, even as Republicans are seeking to do the opposite. That means Republicans are running on broad themes – national security, Obamacare, the economy – while Democratic candidates are emphasizing experience, candidate biographies and personal character.
This same phenomenon last appeared in American politics in the very election, in 2008, that brought Mr. Obama to power. The Republicans then were saddled with an unpopular president, George W. Bush, with the additional disadvantage of a once-in-a-half-century recession. Mr. Obama ran against the ultimate candidate-and-character candidate, former Vietnam prisoner of war Senator John McCain. Mr. Obama had symbolism and personality, to be sure, but he also had the issues with him.
Now the force, if not always the issues, are with the Republicans. Which brings us back to the question at the opening of this essay.
Mr. Obama may be a weak president – he sometimes seems so passive as to suggest he is watching his presidency in a movie on cable rather than playing the starring role – but there is no question he has a weak hand. The economy has not bounced back as robustly or as swiftly as he might have hoped, perhaps a reflection of the depth of the crisis, perhaps a reflection of his inability to steer the economy out of dangerous straits. The Republicans are fired with resentment toward him and passion toward a new brand of conservatism – and their passion stands in stark contrast with the president's reserve.
But maybe he is a strong president with a weak profile. He won a stimulus package at the beginning of his presidency and then pushed through Congress the most comprehensive change in the American social compact – now nicknamed Obamacare – since Medicare, the federal health plan for the elderly, was passed in 1965. Ordinarily that would be a platform for his party allies to rally around, and to run on.
But Mr. Obama is not an ordinary president and these are not ordinary times. Obamacare is heading toward the history books. The Democratic majority in the Senate may be headed toward the dustbin of history. That may be the legacy of the 44th president of the United States: a giant figure, casting a tiny shadow.