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The Obama Conundrum

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Entering the Phone Booth as Superman, Leaving as Clark Kent

Among the curious spectacles of our moment, the strangeness of the Obama presidency hasn't gotten its full due. After decades in which "the imperial presidency" was increasingly in the spotlight, after two terms of George W. Bush in which a literal cult of executive power -- or to use the term of that moment, "the unitary executive" -- took hold in the White House, and without any obvious diminution in the literal powers of the presidency, Barack Obama has managed to look like a bystander at his own funeral.

If I had to summarize these years, I would say that he entered the phone booth dressed as Superman and came out as Clark Kent. Today, in "The Mystery of Washington's Waning Global Power," Dilip Hiro points out that, as far as Obama's foreign (and war) policy, it's almost as if, when the American president speaks, no one in the Greater Middle East -- not even our closest allies or client states -- is listening. And true as it may be for that region, it seems, bizarrely enough, no less true in Washington where the president's recent attempts to intervene in the Syrian civil war were rejected both by Congress (though without a final vote on the subject) and by the American people via opinion polls.

It should be puzzling just how little power the present executive is actually capable of wielding. He can go to the U.N. or Kansas City and make speeches (that themselves often enough implicitly cast him as a kind of interested observer of his own presidency), but nothing much that he says in Washington seems any longer to be seriously attended to. In the foreign policy arena, he is surrounded by a secretary of defense who ducks for cover, a secretary of state who wanders the world blowing off steam, and a national security advisor and U.N. ambassador who seem like blundering neophytes and whose basic ideological stance (in favor of American -- aka "humanitarian" -- interventions globally) has been rejected in this country by almost any constituency imaginable. Unlike previous presidents, he evidently has no one -- no Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker, or even Henry Kissinger -- capable of working the corridors of power skillfully or bringing a policy home.

Domestically, who ever heard of a presidency already into its second term that, according to just about all observers, has only one significant achievement -- Obamacare (whatever you think of it) -- and clearly hasn't a hope in hell of getting a second one? Just as he's done in Syria, Obama will now be watching relatively helplessly as Republicans in Congress threaten to shut the government down and not raise the debt ceiling -- and whatever happens, who expects him to be the key player in that onrushing spectacle? America's waning power in the Greater Middle East is more than matched by Obama's waned power in this country. In our lifetime, we've never seen a president -- not even the impeached Clinton -- so drained of power or influence. It's a puzzle wrapped in an enigma swaddled by a pretzel. Go figure.