03/10/2014 09:06 am ET Updated May 10, 2014

A Presidency of Decline

Cross-posted with

Doesn't this just say it all? After Majority Leader Harry Reid went the ultimate mile for the president, loosing the "nuclear option" on the Senate to wipe out Republican filibusters of a bevy of log-jammed presidential nominations, and after the Republicans -- the president's proudly disloyal opposition -- had fumed to their hearts' content, Obama still couldn't get his nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division confirmed. The culprits in a Congress where, from the White House point of view, evil has been every shade of Republican turned out to be seven disloyal Democrats. Despite a "sustained closed-door effort" by Obama and his aides, they voted the nominee down. Think of it as a little parable for the Obama presidency.

Meanwhile, in foreign policy, the din has been thunderous when it comes to Vladimir Putin and events in Ukraine. Denunciations of the Russian president have rung from every quarter in Washington. Sanctions against individual Russians have been issued with broader sanctions threatened and Secretary of State John Kerry has led the way. But so far it's been a Charge of the Lite Brigade. Kerry actually had the chutzpah to say of the Russian troops sent into the Crimea, "You just don't in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext." And the former senator, who had voted for the invasion of Iraq (to deal with Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction program), did it straight-faced. Had the situation not been so grim, it would have been pure stand-up.

The poor people of Ukraine are, of course, caught in the ring with global heavyweights and wannabes. And the action's been hot and heavy. For one thing, the White House seems to have leaked German Chancellor Angela Merkel's private suggestion to the president that, in a conversation they had, Putin had been "in another world" -- i.e. deranged. (It was assumedly a good way for the White House to depth charge her relationship with the Russian president.) As for Putin, if he's crazy, by all accounts he's crazy like a fox. He's managed to go to "war" with what's left of the Red Army and as the leader of a far more ramshackle state than the Soviet Union without a shot so far being fired. He's been punching visibly above his weight.

Thematically true to the Obama era, Washington has no less visibly been punching below its weight. Its theme, widely announced, has been to "isolate" Russia, particularly economically. Even as Republican congressional representatives were clambering aboard the Good Ship Sanctions (while continuing to denounce the president), the Obama administration hasn't been able to rally those who actually matter: its European allies.

Yes, they've all said the right words in the rhetorical war that's been underway, but in a fashion new in the trans-Atlantic relationship, even Great Britain has balked at Washington's urgings to impose real sanctions on the Russians. And no wonder: unlike the U.S., the Germans and others have significant trade relationships with that country and rely on it for natural gas supplies, none of which are they eager to imperil. Here, too, for all the sound and fury signifying little, Obama seems to have been trumped by Putin.

The president's inability to get much of significance done, no matter the topic, has become legendary. In this, he may be the perfect symbol of our age. His is a presidency of decline. As TomDispatch regular David Bromwich indicates in "The Voice," a sweeping character portrait of the man we've never quite come to know, he's had an uncanny knack for embodying the waning of American power. Whether at home or abroad, it seems as if that power is somehow mysteriously draining out of Washington. As Bromwich suggests, the president's words can still soar, but the actions he proposes show a remarkably consistent inability to leave the ground.