By Richard McGregor in Washington
It is remarkable that Barack Obama, only months after a convincing re-election, seems to keep falling back on his self-professed powerlessness when pressed about his second-term agenda.
Be it on closing down Guantanamo Bay, ending the across-the-board budget cuts (known as sequestration), restricting firearms sales or bringing Obamacare into life, Mr Obama talks more about what he can’t get done than the other way round.
The president suffered the indignity at a Tuesday press conference of being asked if his second-term administration still had any “juice” left, joking in response that maybe he should “just pack up and go home”.
“As Mark Twain said, rumours of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point,” he said.
As many commented in the immediate aftermath of his news conference, any president who has to assert they are still in charge most likely is not.
Mr Obama is right that he is facing entrenched congressional opposition across a range of policy issues, most notably on the budget and his insistence that deficit reduction include extra tax revenues.
In last year’s election, he ran against Congress, and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, to great success.
The Republicans however, apart from some cosmetic changes largely in policy presentation, seem to have barely noticed.
Apart from ceding on the fiscal cliff at the start of the year and allowing taxes on the wealthy to rise, something they could not avoid as the changes were locked in by legislation, the Republicans have stood firm.
No amount of presidential pressure, nor charm, have worked so far, with the possible exception of immigration.
A bipartisan immigration bill has started to work its way through the Senate, and reform of some kind that charts a path to citizenship for the 11m-odd people in the US illegally has significant Republican support in the House.
But self-interest is overwhelmingly dictating the Republicans’ actions on immigration. With about 70 per cent of Hispanics who voted in 2012 backing Mr Obama, Republicans faced a choice on immigration: long-term electoral oblivion or some sort of accommodation on the issue.
Otherwise, Mr Obama is annoyed by suggestions that his inability to bring Congress around to his point of view is his fault.
“You seem to suggest that somehow these folks over there (in Congress) have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job,” he said at his press conference.
Mr Obama is widely criticised for not courting, cajoling and pressuring Congress. But he also suffers from the “curse of Caro”, in the phrase of the Washington Post’s congressional correspondent, Paul Kane.
Robert Caro’s four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (there is still one volume to go) has enthralled Washington’s political junkies, especially the tales of his ability to bend Congress to his will.
If only Mr Obama could work some of Mr Johnson’s magic!
The trouble with this comparison is that Mr Johnson had something to work with, a Congress in which 30 to 40 per cent of its members could be classified as moderates, or persuadable.
No such bloc exists today and no amount of charm and threats from Mr Obama will change that. That leaves the one avenue that has worked for Mr Obama – taking his case on the road to the American people. Expect to see more of it soon.