The “fiscal cliff” fiasco has made it clear that President Barack Obama is entirely irrelevant to the everyday task of governing. He is not interested in it, and he is not good at it. He is great at campaigning and terrible at leading. He is essentially a symbol, a political celebrity who could be re-elected forever because people seem to like what they think he stands for, and what he tells them he stands against. But he does nothing positive for the country.
The deal that took shape on Capitol Hill over the past few days and weeks happened almost without President Obama’s involvement–and despite his hyper-partisan press conference yesterday, which nearly poisoned the entire process. No doubt he will be able to offer sophisticated-sounding reflections on the entire affair, which largely repeat analyses from policy briefings and the press. But President Obama was absent, and unwanted.
Vice President Joe Biden–an incompetent poseur–is essentially running the country. President Obama delegates every significant responsibility to him–from drafting proposals to stop gun violence, to monitoring the stimulus spending, to boosting the middle class. In the “fiscal cliff” negotiations and the debt ceiling negotiations before them, Biden was the man chosen to talk with Congress–and Congress evidently prefers to talk to him as well.
It is almost impossible to imagine Obama doing anything else except making speeches. The iconic image of the White House Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound says it all: the President is in the corner, not at the head of the table. It was not a gesture of humility, but rather the preferred posture of a man who relies on those to whom he delegates responsibility, and cannot succeed at anything except getting elected.
Even as a symbol, Obama is failing. Contrary to what Democrats would like to believe, the United States is more disliked abroad, not less, under Obama than under George W. Bush. And after running one of the most divisive campaigns in recent memory, President Obama can no longer pretend to be a uniter. People only like him when they can forget the reality of who he is and what he has done. The less he does, the more popular he is.
Barack Obama occupies the same place in the American imagination that Queen Elizabeth does in Britain. He is effectively the head of state, not the head of government. People would prefer that he merely give holiday greetings and show up at ribbon cutting ceremonies rather than making important decisions. He costs a lot of money and keeps the press busy and gives parties and reflects upon the world from a position of comfortable solitude.
He is King Obama the Irrelevant.
In his own imagination, he wishes he had monarchical powers. He occasionally frets about constitutional limits to his power, and sidesteps the legislature at every opportunity. Many of the changes he has made will have lasting effects. But there may be other would-be kings after him, and they may not share his policy desires. The precedent he has set cuts both ways. And as a wiser king, Solomon, observed in Ecclesiastes, nothing is permanent.