Think of us as having two presidents. One, a fellow named Barack Obama, cuts a distinctly Clark Kent-ish figure. In presiding over domestic policy, he is regularly thwarted in his desires by the Republicans in Congress and couldn't until recently get his most basic choices for government positions or the judiciary through the Senate. For the most minimal look of effectiveness, he has to rely on relatively small gestures by executive order. In the recent history of the American presidency, he is a remarkably powerless figure presiding over what everyone who is a media anyone claims is a riven, paralyzed, even broken government structure, one in which the Republicans are intent on ensuring that a Democratic president can do nothing until they take the White House (which is almost guaranteed to be never). What this president wants, almost by definition, he can't have. He is, as Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote recently, a man who's lost the plot line to his own story and has been relegated to the position of onlooker-in-chief.
But keep in mind that that's only one of our two presidents. The other, a fellow named Barack Obama, flies (by drone) like Superman, rules more or less by fiat, sends U.S. missiles to strike and kill just about anyone, including American citizens, anywhere in the distant backlands of the planet, and dispatches the country's secret warriors (whether from the CIA or the special operations forces) wherever he pleases. He can, with rare exceptions, intervene violently wherever he chooses. He can (by proxy) listen in on whomever he's curious about (including, it seems, 320 German business and political leaders). He rules over what former Congressional insider Mike Lofgren calls the "deep state" in Washington, a national security apparatus that is neither riven, nor broken, nor paralyzed, with only the rarest intercessions from Congress. In this world, Obama's powers have only grown, along with the "kill list" he reviews every week.
Admittedly, in his actions abroad from Afghanistan to Libya, his moves on the global stage haven't exactly proven to be brilliant coups de théâtre. Many have, in fact, been remarkably boneheaded. But no one ever claimed that Superman's superpowers included super-brain-power.
Think of this White House, then, as the schizophrenic presidency, one half remarkably impotent, the other ever more potent. The conundrum is that they both inhabit the same man. And if they add up to anything, as Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, makes clear in her new piece "The Five Commandments of Barack Obama," it's long-term bad news for the country and the planet.