Trouble Comes in Threes for Obama

Obama needs some wins this year, but it doesn't look promising.

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen.

It's time for Obama to stop playing nice.

By + More

Barack Obama and I go back to the same summer when we were born into the sixties, the age of Aquarius.  

So we were young when "The Yellow Submarine" movie came out, when the moon landing happened and when Richard Nixon resigned. I have been marking him pretty closely since that euphoric, bone-and-blood chilling day five years ago when he was sworn in as president. He was the first of our generation, born after 1960, and we all had high hopes and dreams for him -- me and my beloved community. 

The speech he gave that day was grim, what with the economic downturn and all. Still, soaring words were the young president's coin of the realm, the reason he got elected with such a slender portfolio. Strange that he didn't use his words that day. 

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

So as I say, I watch Obama like a hawk, not just what he says and does, but what he doesn't say and do. No question that he is exceptionally gifted. Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, states in his new book, "Duty," that he has never seen anyone (with no experience) take the mantle of executive authority so well. No question he has a beautiful mind. No question he gracefully carries all his burdens. He does us proud.

And yet. After 2013 passed with no points on the board, Obama really needs a win or two in his sixth year in office, 2014. In this town, with this Congress, the perception of the president getting precious little signed into law will soon lead to the reality. 

So I was pleased to see him acting more like a politician early this year, in a good way, going out to states like Michigan and Maryland, to talk to "folks" -- farmers, factory and store workers. He needs to get his name out there (no joke), define his agenda and overcome bad press after the troubled Obamacare rollout. Here in Washington, he must overcome his aloof image among Democratic lawmakers. He finally reached out, inviting House Democrats over for a drinks party at the White House. Good move, yet why was that so hard?  

Obama has assembled a smarter, savvier team in the White House, notably John Podesta, former chief of staff for President Clinton. Better late than never; Obama's political talent absolutely must be harnessed by people who understand how the game is played, people who realize Obama will not change the culture of Washington, as he was so fond of saying once. He actually believed it, too. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

My cautious optimism for the new year lasted past a strong showing at the State of the Union. However, in recent days, three bad things have happened for the president. No Republicans took the road trip for the signing of the farm bill, a heavily freighted and contested bill that took two years to make -- sausages and all. That was cold on their part, an unmistakable signal that they have no love or even like for Obama. 

Second, as if to underscore this, House Speaker John Boehner insulted the administration in recently announcing there would be no meeting of party lines on immigration. That was one policy area where agreement looked possible. But no: no amnesty, no bargaining, no deal. Boehner, the son of a barkeep, seemed to pride himself on being rude to the president in adding the White House could not be "trusted" to enforce new immigration laws. 

I think it's time Obama stopped pretending to be friends with the speaker. He needs to be clear that Boehner does not wish him or his presidency well. Instead of complaining about "Washington" all the time, he should say what he means: "House Republicans." The nation needs to be reminded every so often of the tough crowd that shut down the government last fall. 

Finally, an unfortunate vote in the Senate on extending unemployment benefits this winter came up one short. That was a concrete, tangible vote that could have delivered something that really mattered to people in need. Obama made a point of mentioning it in the State of the Union. His own street cred suffered a bit when this snowball melted. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Raising the minimum wage, another sensible Democratic proposal Obama championed in the State of the Union, looks unlikely to pass as well. Some Southern Democrats in the Senate aren't buying it. 

Foreign policy may be the thing to write home about in the second term thanks to John Kerry, the secretary of state Obama was practically forced into appointing by Sen. John McCain, who opposed his first choice, Susan Rice. Kerry's sense of clarity and urgency is refreshing, isn't it?  

Bad things come in threes. To reverse the direction the year is taking so far, Obama should stay energetically engaged in the art of politics, keep track of friends and enemies, and perhaps press harder on partisan warfare. Just a suggestion, as my favorite editor used to say when something definitely needed to be done.