History Shorts: A Lame Duck Crisis

History Shorts: A Lame Duck Crisis

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When the lame duck period was much longer than it is today, two U.S. presidents let their personal animosity drag the country further into crisis.

Commentary: Bush should do something to stop crisis

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.

Julian Zelizer says presidents have accomplished much in the final days of their terms.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- The lame-duck president is believed to be one of the more impotent figures in American politics -- a commander in chief who is unable to do much because he lacks political muscle.

Legislators know he'll be out of power after January 20. Very often the lame-duck president is deeply unpopular and has lost most goodwill even from members of his own party.

This is certainly the case for President George W. Bush. The president finishes his term as one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history. Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 and this year, they expanded the size of their majority significantly.

There is still the potential for a filibuster-proof Senate. Pundits, including some conservatives, feel the coalition Ronald Reagan built in 1980 has fallen apart. Bush was the captain of the Republican Titanic as it sank.

But Bush does not have to sit on his hands until January 20. Despite the conventional wisdom, lame-duck presidents can be effective.

After losing to Reagan in 1980, Jimmy Carter -- whose unpopularity then rivals Bush today -- pushed through Congress two of the biggest environmental measures in American history. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act created a trust fund for toxic cleanups.

Carter also signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to protect almost 100 million acres of land and rivers in Alaska.

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Carter also negotiated a deal that led to the release of American hostages held in Iran.

Though the Iranians refused to release the hostages while Carter was in office -- literally keeping them on the airport tarmac on the day of Reagan's inauguration -- it was the Carter administration that established the framework that ended the crisis without military force.

President Ronald Reagan advanced negotiations with the Soviet Union in 1988 before he left the White House. One of Reagan's biggest breakthroughs as president was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the arms treaty did not guarantee a peaceful future. Conservatives, including Senate Republicans like Indiana's Dan Quayle, who was also the vice president-elect, opposed the INF and distrusted Gorbachev. Quale and others said they felt the agreement was a trick by hard-liners in the Kremlin.

Indeed, many members of George H.W. Bush's team were skeptical about changes in the Soviet Union and extremely hesitant to pursue further arms deals.

Reagan hosted a meeting in New York with Gorbachev and President-elect George H.W. Bush on December 7, 1988 at Governors Island. Before the lunch meeting, Gorbachev delivered a dramatic speech at the U.N. about a new international order, connected by the global economy, in which military force was not the prime tool of foreign policy. He endorsed the idea that nations should be free to determine their own future and promised dramatic reductions in Soviet weapons.

Though the lunch at Governors Island did not include substantive negotiations, it was important because Reagan was able to personally smooth relations between the two men, and Gorbachev got his first opportunity to persuade President-elect Bush that changes in the Soviet Union were real.

After lunch, Gorbachev toasted his hosts, turning to Bush and saying, "this is our first agreement." Although Bush remained skeptical, this first step launched a relationship that culminated in another historic arms reduction deal in 1991.

President Clinton tried to use his time as a lame duck as well. In early January, before leaving office, Clinton tried one last time to broker a Middle East peace agreement. Though all the sides got very close to a deal, negotiations eventually collapsed, leaving Clinton greatly frustrated. But he tried, right until the final day, to reach a breakthrough.

So far we have not seen strong evidence that President Bush is thinking of moving aggressively on any issue.

The most important area where he could help is as deal-maker on a bipartisan compromise for an economic stimulus bill, including dealing with the failing automobile industry.

President Bush started his term on the promise of bringing new civility to Washington and boasting of his ability to reach across the aisle in Texas. Early in his presidency, he displayed some flashes of this new tone with No Child Left Behind and with his initial response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. But that bipartisan approach quickly faded into Karl Rove's strategy of playing to the base of the party.

Now, with just less than two months left in his presidency, Bush should follow the tradition of lame-duck presidents who tried to make a difference, rather than simply playing out the clock.

The economy is in crisis and there is strong demand for Washington to do something. President Bush's legacy could benefit from some effective action. The president should break bread with Democrats and get this recovery started.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Julian Zelizer.


WHAT CHEFF COOKED UP — “Eighth Paterson cop arrested in FBI corruption probe, sources say,” by The Paterson Press’ Joe Malinconico: “Federal authorities allege that Paterson Police Sgt. Michael Cheff routinely took a share of the ill-gotten money stolen by patrol officers he supervised from citizens who were illegally stopped and searched. In one instance, while a suspect was handcuffed inside a police car in November 2017, Cheff and two other officers went inside the man’s apartment and found a safe containing drugs and money, according to the United States Attorney’s Office. Cheff submitted some of the drugs and money as evidence, but split the rest with the other crooked cops — all of whom already have pleaded guilty in the FBI case, authorities said.”

JERSEY CITY — “Elected school boards rarely change to appointed boards but Jersey City could be next,” by The Jersey Journal’s Joshua Rosario: “If Jersey City voters opt to convert their school board to an appointed body, it would be the first time in 16 years that a New Jersey school district makes such a change. Today, just 14 of the state’s 600-plus school boards have members who are appointed by mayors, rather than elected by voters. The Jersey City Council will consider a resolution Wednesday adding a public question to November’s ballot asking voters whether the nine members of the Board of Education should continue to be elected by the public or be appointed by the mayor with council approval … The last time voters gave up the right to elect a school board was in 2004 in Rockleigh Township.”

“Why the Jersey City official who called local Jews ‘brutes’ has not resigned,” by JTA’s Ben Sales: “In the days after a local official responded to the Jersey City shooting by calling local Jews ‘brutes’ and expressing sympathy for the shooters, it appeared that pressure was quickly mounting for her to resign . Three weeks later, Board of Education member Joan Terrell-Paige is still in her post and it doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere. Terrell-Paige’s staying power comes from a mix of neighborhood support and circumstance. Local politicians and residents have spoken out in her defense, while her opponents are powerless to oust her as an elected official. At its meeting last week, the board took no action to remove her. Her term runs through the end of the year.”

EAST RUTHERFORD — “GOP drops challenge in East Rutherford,” by New Jersey Globe’s David Wildstein: “The race for mayor in East Rutherford is over, giving Democrats control of the mayoralty for the first time since 1970. Republican Sergio Segalini is dropping his challenge of the 2019 general election, which he lost to Democrat Jeffrey Lahullier by just five votes. The GOP was only able to prove four votes were invalid for miscounted, the New Jersey Globe has learned.”

The Lame Duck Session Is a Dangerous Time for Congress. Here's What House Democrats Can Learn From History

A fter this November&rsquos blue wave crashed on the electoral shore, Congress returned to Washington in the all-American oddity of the lame-duck session, when lawmakers who have lost their posts but retain office go to work on Capitol Hill. But the lame-duck session is more than just strange: it&rsquos dangerous for incoming majorities hoping to keep their campaign promises.

As one political scientist observed in 1933, “defeated Congressmen have frequently been found trouble-makers and mischief-mongers” while they remain in Washington. He had reason to know, having just watched president Herbert Hoover and other defeated Republicans spend their last weeks in office trying to deny Franklin Roosevelt and the new Democratic majority the ability to enact their promised New Deal &mdash and nearly succeeding.

Hoover understood quite well what the New Deal would mean because, as he grumbled, “there is constant promise” from the Democrats of their new policies. Once in office they would borrow money to build dams, roads, bridges and whatever else they could to put Americans to work. They would increase the debt and cause inflation. (Although Roosevelt had declared himself in favor of a balanced budget, he admitted he would do nothing in that direction that would inhibit Depression relief.) During the campaign Hoover warned these policies would “destroy the very foundations of the American system of life,” and said they smelled of the same “fumes of the witch’s caldron which boiled over in Russia.”

The Depression-stricken electorate had ignored him: but now maybe he would save them from themselves. As the journalist and informal Hoover advisor Mark Sullivan wrote of his defeated friend, Hoover, in the time remaining of his presidency, could &ldquoalmost &hellip dictate the Democratic program.”

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This annual oddity in the life cycle of ducks has spawned multiple pop culture expressions. The vulnerability of ducks during wing molt has inspired the dictum that it is “unsporting to shoot a sitting duck.” While I don’t have evidence that Senator Hale’s derogatory metaphor for retired politicians was inspired by a knowledge of the natural history of waterfowl, it seems likely that his upbringing in rural New Hampshire and coastal Maine in the early 19th century would have acquainted him with duck hunting lore.

However, an ornithological perspective can provide new insights into this unusual moment in American political life. Although President Trump is loath to admit it, he has certainly been behaving like a genuine lame duck. Sulking in secluded recesses of the West Wing since his election defeat, and well protected from pot shots by the White House press corps, Trump’s presence is revealed only by occasional urgent quacks—ducky tweets—out from his swampy lair. After four to six weeks in seclusion, he will likely emerge with a new orange plumage, perhaps outfitted with a fresh oversized suit, and ready to migrate south to the warmer haunts of Mar-a-Lago for the cold winter ahead.

2014 Lame Duck Legislative Issues

Only in Washington would we need to qualify what &ldquomust&rdquo be done by what &ldquowill&rdquo be done and what might only be partially done. This is the nature of the Congressional gridlock we have observed. We classify lame duck legislation into 4 categories:
1. &lsquoMust & will&rsquo: Legislation that must and will be done
2. &lsquoMust, but&rsquo: Legislation that must be done, but potentially will only be partially done
3. &lsquoOught-to, but&rsquo: Legislation that should be done, but may not get done and
4. &lsquoMaybes&rsquo: Legislation that may be considered if there is any &lsquooxygen&rsquo left over.

Congressional action largely will be dependent on the outcome of the Senate elections and its post-election mood. House Republicans are expected to gain seats and in August and September that seemed to quell earlier intra-party discord. At this juncture, House and Senate staff are meeting and working on deals, but without Members on the floor of each body, and with constant party lunches and leadership meetings, the outlook for the 2014 Lame Duck is unclear.

Wexler | Walker believes if the Republicans win a majority of the Senate, the odds favor many issues being held over until 2015. Both chambers of Congress return November 12th, 2014. However, the legislative calendar is unclear. The House Majority Leader&rsquos Office will not publish its calendar of legislative days until after the leadership elections are completed, which will occur soon after the November 12th return. The Senate calendar and election plans will also occur after the election, but may be delayed if run-offs occur in December and January.

&lsquoMust & Will&rsquo Legislation:

1. Funding of Government Operations: The current Continuing Resolution (CR) providing funds for agency operations expires December 11th and must be extended by changing the date or completing an Omnibus Package (&ldquoOmni&rdquo).

&bull Omni: Leadership of the Appropriations committee would like to make this an Omnibus/CR, and so would House Leadership, but that would be unlikely in this environment.

- An Omni would most likely include the Defense, Military Construction, Homeland Security, Commerce Justice Science, and perhaps Agriculture Appropriations bills for the entire fiscal year, while the remaining bills/agencies would operate under their FY14 levels.

&bull Extension of the current CR: The experience with CR extensions is mixed at best for the functioning of the new Congress. Moreover, if the Senate has switched who is in control, a considerable amount of time will be spent figuring out committee ratios, gavels, staff, and other perks. This will certainly complicate any quick passage of bills in the new Congress (2015). With the ISIL issue looming and other pressing tasks, a short term CR may be the default option.

- March 15th was used a couple of years back for a mid-short length CR. For 2015, this date would mean that funding the government would coincide with raising the debt limit &ndash always a hot button issue for conservatives and possible a recipe for a return to brinksmanship. However, some in leadership are looking to make sure the debt limit and CR stay uncoupled &ndash i.e., no return to cliffs and crisis management. In addition, the mood in the Senate will impact what can get done and when. We will not know what will transpire until we can ascertain if it&rsquos a big win for Senate Republicans, a squeaker, or Democrats maintain their majority in the Senate.

- Organization and functioning of the Senate if it flips &ndash In the past reorganizing the Senate when there is a change in power makes for bit of chaos in January and February. Moreover, runoff elections could extend uncertainty of which party is in the majority, leading to a longer period of disorganization, even into early 2015.

2. Expiring Authorizations that MUST get done &ndash most likely in CR/Omni:
&bull Internet Tax Freedom Act&ndashextended until December 11th in the current CR, it is unlikely to be coupled with Marketplace Fairness Act (which would allow state governments to collect sales tax from remote retailers that have no physical presence in the state).

&bull Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act&ndashSTELA&ndashwhich allows retransmission of broadcast content by satellite companies &ndash copyright authorization expires 12/31/14

&lsquoMust, But&rsquo Legislation:

1. Tax Extenders:
&bull Discussion: Senate&rsquos &ldquoExpire Act&rdquo takes all 50 or so current expiring tax provisions and extends them for two years, through 2016. House has passed a subset of those provisions that they have made permanent, with the others expiring. Included in this package is also the &ldquoDoc fix,&rdquo or Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR).
&bull Some in the Senate see a likely deal as: 47 of the 50 provisions get a 1 or 2 year extension, and 3 are made permanent (e.g., R&D tax credit, stimulus tax provisions that expire in 2017). There is some question about viability of the corporate inversions provision sought by Democrats as a trade for permanency on something Republicans want.
&bull We are picking up some optimism on Senate side about getting a deal done.
&bull House Leadership has told us that this is an issue that must get done.
&bull Note: Some of the expiring provisions have in fact expired already at the end of 2013, and the question of what goes into the package and for what duration will be a complex and politically difficult issue regardless of who wins the Senate.
&bull This question will again be kicked to the Leadership.

2. Terrorist Risk Insurance Act (TRIA):
Industry has been getting out its message, and Members have been hearing about it back home. We believe Leadership will continue to give the Chairman of House Financial Service Committee room to negotiate, but that at some point the pressures to act will be enormous.

&lsquoOught to, but&rsquo Legislation:

1. National Defense Act Authorization (NDAA) for FY15.
&bull House passed a bill as did the Senate Armed Services Committee, but not the full Senate. Pre-conferencing is going on now. Both the House and the Senate will try to move this in November with a no amendment strategy.
&bull ISIL, Ebola, and other war-related issues are now front and center, so fast movement in lame duck may not be possible.

2. Capital Standards (Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)):
&bull There is a high degree of understanding in House Leadership and at the Committee about the importance of this issue. We believe Leadership will give the Chairman room to pursue his policy goals, but as with TRIA, there will be enormous pressure to act as we get closer to Sine Die adjournment at the end of the year.

3. Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate &ndash a.k.a. the Doc Fix
&bull Medicare SGR, a.k.a. physician payment, is currently &lsquopatched&rsquo through March 15th
&bull When it expires, physician payments will plummet by over 25% because of the flaw in the formula.
&bull Some would like to do the permanent fix in lame duck and get it off the table so that they can deal with health care and other tax issues in a clean manner.
&bull Agreement on how to fund the fix remains elusive, and may be a bigger issue than can be solved in a short and chaotic lame duck session.

&lsquoMaybe&rsquo Legislation:

1. Postal reform
2. Some financial services/banking bills beyond Capital Standards
3. Technical bills, e.g., land swaps, etc.
4. VA related matters
5. Nominations. We believe this will be a big area of focus if Democrats lose the Senate.
6. Unanimous Consent requests (UC&rsquos) at the end&hellipstay tuned

Guest blogs are the views of an individual and/or entity and not the official policy of CED.

How productive are lame duck Congresses?

Congress is back from its Thanksgiving break to continue its “lame duck” session — so called because it includes senators and representatives who lost their seats in last month’s elections but whose terms won’t expire till January. Among the items on the congressional to-do list: keeping the government funded, extending an assortment of expired tax breaks, and voting on nominees for ambassadorships, judgeships and other offices.

We wondered, how productive are these lame duck sessions, and is the “lame” part of the tag deserved?

Our analysis found that lame duck sessions are shouldering more of the legislative workload than they used to. The last Congress’ lame duck, which stretched from November 2012 past New Year’s Day 2013, passed only 87 public laws, but that was 30.7% of the Congress’ entire two-year output and 31.3% of its substantive output (that is, excluding post-office renamings, National “fill-in-the-blank” Week designations and other purely ceremonial legislation). In 2010, the 99 public laws passed during the 111th Congress’ lame duck session accounted for 25.8% of all that Congress’ laws (and 29.2% of its substantive laws).

Those figures are up compared with recent history. Looking at the eight full lame duck sessions that were held between 1974 and 2008, on average they accounted for about 18% of the legislative output of their respective Congresses. (The sessions themselves averaged 30.25 calendar days, or 4% of a two-year congressional term, though legislative business wasn’t transacted on every day.)

But those averages obscure considerable variation in lame-duck productivity, which can be measured in several ways.

In terms of sheer volume, the 96th Congress’ lame duck session in November-December 1980 takes first place: It passed a total of 196 laws over 23 session days, among them the Superfund environmental-cleanup law, an Alaska public-lands law, and a law governing electric-power planning in the Pacific Northwest.

Of course, not all laws are equally significant. Looking just at substantive laws, the lame duck session held after the November 1974 election comes out on top, with 138 substantive laws enacted. The unfolding Watergate scandal, and the ensuing collapse of the Nixon-Agnew administration, had so consumed Congress’ attention that much major legislation had been sidelined, according to a detailed Congressional Research Service report on lame duck sessions. The 1974 lame duck Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act and a federal Privacy Act, and ensured that the government, rather than Nixon, retained control over his tapes.

Based just on the numbers, the lame duck session of November-December 2006 made the most efficient use of its time: In just 11 session days (excluding holidays, weekends and other days in which neither the House nor the Senate formally convened) it passed 115 laws, or an average of 10.5 per session day. Those laws, however, didn’t include the main items on the Congress’ unfinished-business list: 11 of 13 appropriations bills. Instead, Congress funded the government through continuing resolutions, a pattern that has recurred more than once since.

Two other lame ducks stand out as short but significant. In 1994, the House and Senate reconvened for the sole purpose of voting on a bill to implement the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, which among other things created the World Trade Organization the House was in session for just one day, the Senate for two. And in 1998, the House alone came back to impeach President Clinton and appoint managers for his Senate trial the only other thing it did in its three-day session was pass a resolution supporting U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.

Lame duck sessions were standard before the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, which moved the starting date for a new Congress from March 4 to January 3. Afterward they were very uncommon (aside from the years during and just after World War II). But as political polarization and legislative gridlock have increased in recent years, lame duck sessions have become a normal part of the political calendar: The past nine Congresses all have come back for post-election legislating.

John Marshall: The Greatest Lame Duck Appointment of All Time – [first of four short essays on the Scalia crisis]

I have never felt any enmity towards you Sir for being elected president of the United States. but the instruments made use of, and the means which were practised to effect a change, have my utter abhorrence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny, and foulest falsehoods.”
Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson

John Adams and the Federalists were appalled when Thomas Jefferson was elected to the Presidency in the autumn of 1800. They regarded Jefferson as a dangerous radical who was bent on destroying Federalist financial system (the national debt, the National Bank of the United States), and who might sweep all Federalist bureaucrats out of office.

Adams and his Federalist partisans in Congress decided to forestall what Jefferson was calling “the second American revolution,” by packing the court system with men who were known Jefferson detractors.

In haste and even some desperation, Adams nominated Virginia’s John Marshall to be Chief Justice of the United States. This happened after the presidential election of 1800, and just a few weeks before Jefferson was inaugurated as the Third President of the United States. Now THAT’S a lame duck appointment!

Marshall was confirmed by the Federalist (lame duck) Senate on January 27, 1801, several months after Jefferson won the election.

Jefferson cried foul. In a letter to Abigail Adams on July 1, 1804, Jefferson wrote, “I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind. They were from among my most ardent political enemies, from whom no faithful cooperation could ever be expected, and laid me under the embarrassment of acting thro’ men whose views were to defeat mine or to encounter the odium of putting others in their places.”

Because he was an unusually civil man, and because it was the early Nineteenth Century (the age of Jane Austen), Jefferson expressed his anger in hurt in this somewhat periphrastic way. Notice that he did not mention his distant cousin John Marshall by name.

But he could not let his anger go. “It seemed but common justice,” he continued, “to leave a successor free to act by instruments of his own choice.”

Think about this for a moment. John Adams had been repudiated by the American people. He was not in the last months of his term, but in the last weeks, AFTER he had been defeated by Jefferson in the election of 1800. Nevertheless, Adams made a range of “midnight appointments,” a few of them in the last days and even last hours of his troubled one-term presidency.

The principal midnight appointment, John Marshall, turned out to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, justice of the Supreme Court in American history. He really was an avowed enemy to Thomas Jefferson, and he really did refuse to provide “faithful cooperation” during Jefferson’s eight years as President.

Who was right? Both Adams and Jefferson had legitimate grievances against the other, and there is no question that Adams appointed Marshall to the court to stymie and embarrass Jefferson. In other words, Adams was not appointing Marshall out of any pure sense that he was the best man in America for so important a post. He wanted to damage his former friend Jefferson, who had undermined his administration and who had now displaced him as President. That Marshall turned out to be an outstanding justice was no part of Adams’s strategy.

Abigail Adams replied to Jefferson’s letter on July 1, 1804. She not only put Jefferson firmly–even rudely–in his place, but gave him a little course in U.S. Constitution 101:

“The constitution empowers the president,” she wrote, “to fill up offices as they become vacant. It was in the exercise of this power that appointments were made, and Characters selected whom Mr. Adams considered, as men faithful to the constitution and where he personally knew them, such as were capable of fulfilling their duty to their country.”

Then Mrs. Adams played the ultimate American trump card. “This was done by president Washington equally, in the last days of his administration, so that not an office remained vacant for his successor [John Adams] to fill upon his coming into office.”

Abigail Adams was right! The President of the United States is the head of the American government from the moment he is inaugurated (then March, now late January) until the moment his successor is nominated, and that person is not only empowered by the Constitution to perform all presidential functions during that swatch of time, but required to perform those duties.

Adams had every right to appoint John Marshall to the Supreme Court. And President Obama has every right–and a constitutional duty–to appoint a successor to the seat filled for thirty years by Antonin Scalia.

The Republicans (and Jefferson) can squawk all they want, but the clear meaning of the U.S. Constitution favors a sitting President. The Senate can refuse to affirm the President’s appointee, but THAT would be a greater offense to the U.S. Constitution than the President’s timely appointment.

And who knows? Maybe the next great justice of the Supreme Court, a Twenty-First Century John Marshall, is in the wings.

To read the entirety of Abigail Adams’s blistering July 1, 1804, letter to her former friend Thomas Jefferson, click here.

Further Reading:
» The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams.
edited by Lester J. Capon.
» What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States.
by James F. Simon.
» America’s Constitution: A Biography.
by Akhil Reed Amar.

Recently in History

Really, [the Panic of 1893] locked into the American psyche the idea that Democrats can’t handle money. You should read those newspapers from back then they all say, We told you, as soon as Democrats got into power, they would destroy the economy.

Of course, we’re living with this now. And you tell me that that’s not going to happen, the minute that Biden, if he gets elected, gets in there. The same way people blame Obama for the crash of 2008. I mean, if Biden is selected, in January, when he takes over, the economy is going to be in the toilet. We have debts like nobody’s business, and they’re going to insist that there’s no money to do anything. It could be just horrible, and that’s exactly what happened after Cleveland was elected in 1892.

Is Obama Already a Lame Duck?

I think we're all agreed the president is fading—failing to lead, to break through, to show he's not at the mercy of events but, to some degree at least, in command of them. He couldn't get a win on gun control with 90% public support. When he speaks on immigration reform you get the sense he's setting it back. He's floundering on Syria. The looming crisis on implementation of ObamaCare has begun to fill the news. Even his allies are using the term "train wreck." ObamaCare is not only the most slovenly written major law in modern American history, it is full of sneaked-in surprises people are just discovering. The Democrats of Washington took advantage of the country's now-habitual distractedness: The country, now seeing what's coming in terms of taxes and fees, will not be amused. Mr. Obama's brilliant sequester strategy—scare the American public into supporting me—flopped. Congress is about to hold hearings on Boston and how the brothers Tsarnaev slipped through our huge law-enforcement and immigration systems. Benghazi and what appear to be its coverups drags on and will not go away press secretary Jay Carney was reduced to saying it happened "a long time ago." It happened in September. The economy is stuck in low-growth, employment in no-growth. The president has about a month to gather himself together on the budget, tax reform and an immigration deal before Congress goes into recess. What are the odds?

Republicans don't oppose him any less after his re-election, and Democrats don't seem to support him any more. This week he was reduced to giving a news conference in which he said he's got juice, reports of his death are greatly exaggerated. It was bad. And he must be frustrated because he thinks he's trying. He gives speeches, he gives interviews, he says words, but he doesn't really rally people, doesn't create a wave that breaks over the top of the Capitol Dome and drowns the opposition, or even dampens it for a moment.

Mr. Obama's problem isn't really the Republicans. It's that he's supposed to be popular. He's supposed to have some sway, some pull and force. He was just re-elected. He's supposed to have troops. "My bill is launched, unleash the hounds of war." But nobody seems to be marching behind him. Why can't he rally people and get them to press their congressmen and senators? I'm not talking about polls, where he hovers in the middle of the graph, but the ability to wield power.

The president seems incapable of changing anything, even in a crisis. He's been scored as passive and petulant, but it's the kind of passivity people fall into when nothing works. "People do what they know how to do," a hardened old pol once said, meaning politicians use whatever talent they have, and when it no longer works they continue using it.

There's no happy warrior in there, no joy of the battle, just acceptance of what he wearily sees as the landscape. He'd seem hapless if he weren't so verbally able.

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