Amateur Hour at the White House

President Obama has consistently missed his opportunities to govern.

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A few weeks back, I argued that the primary force sustaining our politics was inertia. This carrying forward of the status quo is the result of Americans' disinterested disgust and general disillusionment with Washington. As Charlie Cook of National Journal summarized yesterday, "Bottom line: Democrats have exceedingly mediocre poll numbers while Republicans have terrible numbers."

Gallup's recently released survey findings showing that "fewer Americans than ever trust government to handle problems" and the most since 1994 "see neither party as the obvious choice to address" those issues, provide further confirmation of these negative trends.

Taken together, as I explained last June, the 2014 midterm cycle seemed on track to be a replay of the 1990 elections. In other words, it seemed likely that the president's party would suffer relatively moderate losses in the House and the Senate, but that a serious "shellacking" seemed improbable.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But what I also suggested in my previous posts is that the nation's political dynamics never stay put for long. Mood changes and partisan waves are always just around the corner.

For not only are there unanticipated events (e.g., economic crises) that alter the public's perception of which party will govern better, but there are also foreseeable policy battles that politicians look to turn to their party's favor in advance of an election.

Although President Obama may claim that he doesn't need to worry about "style points," his "head-spinning reversal" on Syria's use of chemical weapons has now made it more likely that the midterm cycle will not be like 1990.

While the election is not yet fated to become another 2010, it is the case that Obama's given an opening to the Republicans to stage fiercer fights over the debt ceiling, the budget, the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform. And unsurprisingly, the GOP appears set to ratchet up, not down, the partisan rhetoric and the legislative pressure this next month.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Perhaps, Republican "extremism" is what Obama is going for. It's possible he believes that he can, as the Democrats did in 1998, lure Republicans into "overreaching," which would help him not only unify the Democrats, but also divide and demoralize the GOP.

But one has to wonder: Will this strategy really work again? There's no answer yet to this question, but history suggests that it's unlikely. A president's six-year midterm is almost never a good one for his party. Obama should be protecting his presidential image and working to burnish his approval numbers, not "trash-talking" his opposition and looking for a fight. In short, his better strategy for 2014 is leading and legislating.

Obama was a contender for greatness. But he's consistently missed his governing opportunities and shown himself to be no more than an amateur politician.

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