09/02/2014 12:18 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

The Incredible Shrinking Presidency

I have now received roughly five hundred emails soliciting DNCC and DNC money, circa ten a day for several months. Please stop it. The names of senders are immaterial, since no one would ever believe that anything other than a bot originates this torrent.

Why? With more than two years of his presidency remaining and less than 3 months before a decisive mid-term election, this has become the incredible shrinking presidency. You name the issue, domestic or foreign. Obama vacations on Martha's Vineyard - oh yes, returning to DC for one briefing - in the midst of Ferguson, ISIS, Ukraine and more. No more stirring rhetoric and certainly no bold, decisive leadership. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but it sure appears like Barack Obama is more out than in this presidency. Kind of in the library-planning phase.

Every presidency since the 22nd Amendment (1947) that limited presidents to two terms has meant encroaching lame duck status in a second term. After Truman's come from behind victory in 1948, only Eisenhower's two terms stand out as a modicum of very mediocre stability except for that magnificent "defense industrial complex" goodbye address. Thereafter, of course, Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson excluded himself from running in 1968, Nixon resigned in disgrace, Ford served only the remainder of Nixon's second term, Carter was a one term president, Reagan's second term was perhaps affected by early signs of Alzheimer's that eventually took his life, George H. W. Bush's one term presidency was fleeting, and Clinton's second term was fraught with scandal and impeachment. Not until George W. Bush and, now, Barack Obama, have we seen two sequential two term presidencies that might be judged for the effects of second term malaise. In Bush's case, the disastrous war in Iraq and attendant overreach courtesy of Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al plus the economic collapse of 2008 led to a plummeting approval rating and Republicans' defeat.

But for Barack Obama, his second term dead end has come prematurely by appearing and acting diffident and detached. In his heart of hearts, he cares about issues, domestic and foreign, but absent his omnipresent teleprompters, he seems to be unable to emote. Rather than a bully pulpit. Obama chooses the model - or perhaps cannot dig deeply enough to find his inner self - of a quiescent professor reading from notes.

Once elected, political leaders must incessantly campaign. Those who interrupt the campaign, cease to lead. Obama is now either virtually irrelevant to the mid-term electoral campaigns or a distinct liability were he to appear in some states. The man we elected first in 2008 is no longer.

Martha's Vineyard or golfing with Tiger Woods alienate the "base". Trust father a Sear's salesman (a company soon to fade into obscurity) voted for Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale and the DFL all his life, but he hated golf and didn't know where Hawaii or Indonesia are. He did despise wealth, elitism, private schools, and tan suits.

The first non-Caucasian to be elected president should have been able to connect with African-American voters. Not Barack Obama. His few, occasioned, tentative remarks on race have been demanded by circumstances (shootings of black youths) not broad evocative remarks that could have moved and united a nation. Likewise, immigration - specifically the surge of youths and mothers from Central America - seemingly has caught the Obama administration with no answer except to ask Congress for more money. What is the strategy, long term and broad, for stemming this onslaught humanely? And I could go on ... where this administration has been asleep at the switch. VA malfeasance, NSA privacy violations, sordid behavior in the Secret Service, cover-ups of lethal force in the Border Patrol, and much more. We expected an Obama administration to protect us better. We were foolish.

Astonishingly, Obama and his team have also lost their credibility on foreign policy. Yes, he said he'd end wars, but his larger duty of securing America (and allies) has been by his own admission without a strategy, responding in limited fashion to much larger threats. Russian runs over Crimea and Ukraine. ISIS terrorizes much of the territory from Syria through Northern Iraq, with eyes towards much more. China extends its might throughout East and SE Asia. The mantra of no war may yield war by evincing weakness. At the very least, a US president should address that conundrum in a deep and convincing manner in major foreign and defense policy actions. Just how are we and allies going to stop ISIS? Why not arm Ukraine? How will we defend our allies in East Asia against China? Tell us, Mr. President. And, tell us soon.

This is a presidency given a second chance by a remarkably overwhelming victory in 2012. Now, in September 2014, that appears a distant triumph. President Obama risks losing most of his achievements - health care, extraction from wars and other measures - unless he becomes decisively more engaged, emotionally involved, throw out the teleprompter, and speak to Americans from the gut.


Daniel Nelson leads an international consulting firm in Virginia.