Two singular events in the past two weeks suggest President Obama has entered the twilight of his presidency, with diminishing ability to even muster the support of his Democrat allies in the Senate. First, over the Labor Day weekend, he abruptly changed course and announced he would seek Congressional approval for military action in Syria. The move surprised even members of his Administration. The second was the unexpected withdrawal of Larry Summers, Obama’s presumed pick to be the next Federal Reserve Chairman. Summers’ossible nomination collapsed amid growing opposition from Senate Democrats.
Both events were high priorities for the Obama White House. In the case of Syria, there was immediate opposition among rank-and-file members in the House, but it was widely expected that the Senate would authorize military action. Obama’s party holds a 54-46 majority and could count on support from several GOP hawks, like Sens. McCain and Graham.
Obama, however, had not done any preparation for a Congressional vote. President Bush was able to win the support of around a dozen Democrat Senators to approve the more controversial invasion of Iraq. That, though, was the culmination of months of a coordinated and disciplined outreach campaign. Obama had no such campaign.
In addition, confusing statements from the White House, an underwhelming Obama press conference on Syria from the G-20 Summit, and several gaffes from Sec. of State John Kerry further eroded potential support in the Senate. Before Obama pivoted back to diplomatic talks, it was increasingly clear the Senate would reject military action.
Earlier this year, the White House floated Larry Summers as a possible replacement to outgoing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. The idea was met with mild grumbling from some left-wing Senators. In the intervening months, however, the White House did little to push Summers for the job. The possible nomination languished over the summer and allowed opposition to build. Late last week, several Democrat Senators announced their opposition to Summers, indicating that his nomination would likely fail. Summers withdrew.
Both Syria and Summers were rebukes on two high-profile issues on which a President is normally accorded a great deal of deference. Attention is paid to opposition to Obama from House Republicans, but he has a growing problem maintaining the support of Democrats in the Senate.
Presidents generally hit a lame-duck period in their second terms. Burn-out causes many first-term staff to leave, replaced by people who aren’t able to draw on the energy of an Administration’s first days in office. Also, because second-term Presidents will no longer be on the ballot, the political fortunes of their allies decouple from the President’s. This usually happens around the mid-term elections, after which the campaign for the next Presidential election begins in earnest, with other politicians taking a larger role on the national political stage.
A series of missteps and scandals seem to have sped up this process for Obama. The Benghazi and IRS scandals reenergized those already opposed to Obama. The NSA spying revelations, however, seem to have eroded support for Obama among many of his base voters.
Obama can obviously recover, but he enters potentially bruising battles over the budget and debt from a much-weakened position. Losing Senate Democrat support on two high-profile issues, on the cusp of the fiscal fight, should give Republicans additional leverage. Obama’s approval ratings fell to their lowest levels in the aftermath of the debt ceiling fight in 2011. It should worry the White House that Obama is in a weaker position today than he was then.