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Is Everything Under Control?

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Barack Obama is facing the most dangerous period of his presidency. The danger is that he will not appear to be in control of events. If that perception takes hold, voters will conclude that the president is not up to the job. And they will abandon him.

It is a great fiction, of course, that a president is in control of events. Presidents rarely are. The point is that a president has to appear to be in control. Otherwise the voters feel frightened and leaderless, at the mercy of forces that are out of control.

The challenge becomes particularly acute during natural disasters -- events that are beyond anyone's control. That is when people are desperate to believe that the situation is under control. President Bush faced that challenge when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Instead of immediately taking charge, President Bush appeared remote and passive -- a detached spectator viewing the damage from the air. A great American city was nearly destroyed. Over 1,800 people lost their lives. The president seemed powerless to do anything.

The same thing almost happened after 9/11. For several days, President Bush was hardly in evidence. Fortunately for terrified New Yorkers, they had a leader who seized the moment. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in the streets, covered in ash, holding public briefings, offering reassurance, barking orders. Did he really have the situation under control? No. But Giuliani gave the impression for several terrifying days that he did.

Bush ultimately rescued his image when he showed up at Ground Zero three days later, grabbed a bullhorn and shouted, "I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!" The president offered what Americans desperately wanted in that awful moment: a show of defiance and resolve.

President Obama is not facing the challenge of a natural disaster or an attack. But he does appear to be at the mercy of forces beyond his control. The economy, first and foremost. Americans behave as if the president is commander-in-chief of the economy. He's not, of course. No one is. No one can command an economy of this size and complexity to do anything. But the president has to give that impression.

What exactly can the president do about the debt crisis and the intensifying recession in Europe? He acknowledged at the G-20 summit in Mexico, "Given that we don't have full control over what happens in Europe or the pace at which things happen in Europe, let's make sure that we're doing those things that we do have control over." Like what? He called on Congress to "act on a jobs plan that would put us on a path of creating an extra million jobs." There is not a chance Congress will do that. Meanwhile, the White House seems to be waiting breathlessly for the jobs numbers to come out every month, in the hope that they will deliver salvation.

Those numbers come out next week. This week the administration is waiting helplessly for the Supreme Court to pass judgment on its signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. If that law is declared unconstitutional, Mitt Romney's argument that the Obama presidency has been a failure will get considerable re-enforcement.

When the Court issued its ruling on the Arizona illegal immigration law this week, Justice Antonin Scalia used the opportunity to express contempt for President Obama's executive order halting the deportation of illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. "Are the sovereign states at the mercy of the federal executive's refusal to enforce the nation's immigration laws?" Scalia asked disdainfully.

The president's enemies are gathering against him. Whenever President Obama complains about Congress's failure to act, he makes himself appear to be at the mercy of a hostile Congress. They are in control, not the president.

The same thing happened to President Bill Clinton after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994. The Republican Congress seized the initiative. For a while, House Speaker Newt Gingrich looked like the head of government. Clinton reached his low point on April 18, 1995, when he was reduced to pleading at a news conference, "The President is still relevant here." One day later, the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed. That disaster gave President Clinton the opportunity to restore his image of leadership.

President Jimmy Carter was not so lucky. Carter appeared more and more hapless and ineffectual during the final year of his presidency. He was buffeted by forces beyond his control -- student radicals in Teheran, the energy crisis, inflation, recession, Soviet defiance. Carter's failure led to the election of Ronald Reagan, a man who probably could not have gotten elected in any other year. In 1980, however, Reagan's ability to project leadership and confidence gave the country exactly what it wanted.

What can Obama do? He has to appear unfazed and unrattled: "No drama Obama." His decision to issue a deportation stay was a political masterstroke that rattled his Republican critics, including Justice Scalia. Obama defied efforts by House Republicans to bring down Attorney General Eric Holder by claiming executive privilege. He has taken a series of small-scale initiatives, just as President Clinton did when he was on the ropes -- programs for mortgage relief, jobs for veterans, protections against dangerous invasive species like Burmese pythons and Asian carp, a port expansion in Florida, a pledge to keep a plant open in Ohio. It's Obama's way of keeping his pledge, "If Congress won't act, I will."

And if the Court strikes down the health care law? Obama has to step up immediately and say, "Don't be alarmed. We have other ways of doing this. We will not allow the Court to take health insurance away from fifty million Americans." In other words, everything is under control.

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