Back in the brio and fun of the early '60s, President John F. Kennedy was serenaded on his 45th birthday by Marilyn Monroe in Madison Square Garden. The spirit of the song, "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," like everything else, changes with the times, as Barack Obama knew only too well last week, marking his 50th birthday Thursday. This may be the unhappiest birthday for an American president since Bill Clinton spent his August birthday in purgatory on the island of Martha's Vineyard after admitting to a little fling with Monica Lewinsky.
Oh, the good old days. Said Kennedy after Monroe finished her sultry song and dance: "I can now retire from politics after having had 'Happy Birthday' sung to me in such a sweet wholesome way." [Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]
A light-hearted remark and a good laugh underlines how far away the JFK presidency feels from grim, glum Washington and its besieged first term president. Born in the first summer of Kennedy's famous thousand days, Obama is also a Harvard-educated intellectual with his share of elegance and sangfroid. Lately, that's not working as well for him in the face of high joblessness and lackluster results dealing with recalcitrant Republicans in Congress. The American people like a sunny, optimistic winner—or at least one who can play the part—like former Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
Fifty years makes a difference to a country still growing up. Washington is a much tougher town now, the partisanship more ruthless than ever. It was starry-eyed then in 1961; now it's jaded and weary, as if it has seen this movie before—though last week's events are unprecedented. For his birthday, Obama narrowly escaped a gift-wrapped U.S. Treasury default that would have sent the global economy spinning into space. But his political opponents have another slower punishment as plan B. They will fight Obama every step of the way on everything, dismantle the power of a presidency built on beautiful words and seize the high ground on cutting government spending. (Keynesians are in short supply among Republicans.) Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said at the start, in his flat Kentucky drawl, that his aim was to make Obama a one term president. In recent days on the Senate floor, he spoke openly of "whoever the president is" in 2013, when the debt limit issue rolls around again. [Read more about the 2012 presidential election.]
Many friends see in Obama a reluctance to face down and engage Republican enemies in Congress and suspect he doesn't realize how dead set they are to bring him down. Chief among them is House Speaker John Boehner, who might have stepped out of a satirical novel about small-town Ohio. In the deal Obama just struck with the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate, he gave into virtually every Republican demand in return for their agreement to raise the debt ceiling. This cost them nothing; it may have cost Obama everything he has in terms of his party's confidence. Few leading Democrats, including the influential Rep. Nancy Pelosi, concealed their disdain for the debt ceiling bill even as they voted for it to avert a global crisis.
That's not much to write home to the country, Mr. President. Happy Birthday—maybe next August.