In 1994, the Republicans took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. The significance of that victory is hard for some younger people to appreciate, as the parties now seem to rotate power. The House then was the Democratic Party's fiefdom. The Gingrich Revolution was a tectonic shock. By the spring of 1995, Americans were talking as if we had suddenly adopted a parliamentary system with House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the prime minister. Really.
President Clinton was asked at a news conference if he were even relevant anymore. He responded: "The Constitution gives me relevance." Critics guffawed at first, because it set such a low bar, like raving about potted meat because it complies with the minimal government standards for human consumption. Didn't the president bring anything else to the table, other than the job description?
But Clinton was right. The presidency matters, period. Soon, Clinton had more going for him. The news conference after the Oklahoma City bombing gave him an opening, and the rebounding economy gave him a wind at his back.
In 2010, President Obama's party suffered from an even worse "shellacking" in the House than Clinton had in 1994. Few asked whether Obama was still relevant, in part because the Democrats still held the Senate, but also because we had learned from Clinton that it's a silly question.
And that's what is amazing about Obama's presidency right now. It is almost entirely pro forma. Save for a few marginal exceptions (like an overly sympathetic media and the loyalty of Senate Democrats), his place in American politics rests entirely with what the job brings to him and not what he brings to it.
Obama seems incapable of moving public opinion, at least among people who don't already agree with him. You can tell his handlers have noticed because his talking points have become top-heavy with jargon freshly minted from focus groups: corporate jet owners, "winning the future," raising revenue instead of raising taxes, etc.
Similarly, his shopworn rhetoric has become more desperate. On July 5, he said of the debt-ceiling negotiations, "It's my hope … that we'll all leave our political rhetoric at the door." The next day he insisted that "the debt ceiling should not be … used as a gun against the heads of the American people to extract tax breaks for corporate jet owners, for oil and gas companies that are making billions of dollars because the price of gasoline has gone up so high."
When Obama says people should drop their political rhetoric, he means everyone else.
The most telling sign that Obama's presidency has been shorn of its pretensions to greatness is not rhetorical but substantive. Obama began his presidency using his deficit reduction commission as an excuse not to worry about the deficit, as he racked up trillions of dollars more. When the commission released its recommendations, he politely ignored them.
Ever since Obama's decision to extend the George W. Bush tax cuts until 2013, he's been pulled in a direction not of his choosing. Amid talk of a second stimulus, he began the year with a budget that increased the deficit, and it sank without a ripple. In April, after the GOP came out with the Ryan plan, Obama offered a new, fake counter-budget in the form of a gaseous speech. And until recently the White House still thought it could get a "clean" debt-ceiling hike simply by insisting on it.
The national conversation now is not one he wants to have. "I'd rather be talking about stuff that everyone welcomes, like new programs," he said at Monday's news conference. But, "The politics that swept [John Boehner] into the speakership were good for a midterm election. They're tough for governing."
But even as Obama has been forced to put aside his understanding of what governing means, Clinton's point is still valid. When it comes to getting the deal done, it's very difficult to go around the presidency, and it's very easy for the president to declare victory even after a failure. Obama may not be bringing much to the table, but it remains his table — because it came with the office.