The New York Times lead story Thursday by Jeremy Peters, "An Onset of Woes Raises Questions on Obama Vision," gave the President Obama a partial pass amid the multiple scandals besetting his administration, portraying him as at least somewhat a passive victim of circumstance. As if the president's fierce personal attacks on his political enemies didn't set a tone for his administration that could have led to such abuses as the IRS's harassment of new Tea Party nonprofit groups.
Thwarted on Capitol Hill, stymied in the Middle East and now beset by scandal, President Obama has reached a point just six months after a heady re-election where the second term he had hoped for has collided with the second term he actually has.
Mr. Obama emerged from a heated campaign last November with renewed confidence that he could shape the next four years with a vision of activist government as a force for good in American society. But the controversies of recent days have reinforced fears of an overreaching government while calling into question Mr. Obama’s ability to master his own presidency.
The challenges underscore a paradox about the 44th president. He presides over a government that to critics appears ever more intrusive, dictating health care choices, playing politics with the Internal Revenue Service and snooping into journalists’ phone records. Yet at times, Mr. Obama comes across as something of a bystander occupying the most powerful office in the world, buffeted by partisanship and forces beyond his control.
On Wednesday, announcing the departure of the acting director of the I.R.S., he portrayed himself as an onlooker to the scandal, albeit one with the power to force changes. “Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I’m angry about it,” he said.
He likewise had nothing to do with the Justice Department seizure of phone records of reporters for The Associated Press, aides say. The Benghazi dispute, he complains, is brazen politics, and the White House released e-mails Wednesday meant to show that the president’s close aides had little involvement in its most hotly debated aspect. He has no way to force Congress to pass even a modest gun-control bill, aides say, while the slaughter in Syria defies American capacity to intervene.
All of which raises the question of how a president with grand ambitions and shrinking horizons can use his office. Mr. Obama may be right about some of the things he cannot do, but he has also struggled lately to present a vision of what he can do.
Still, the latest furors could harden an impression of an Obama presidency that has expanded the reach of government further than many Americans would like. And they can undermine a powerful tool of the presidency, the ability to focus public attention.
Yet Mr. Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he has talked longingly of “going Bulworth,” a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty’s character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama’s desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him.
Times reporter Peter Baker made a similar argument in a front-page analysis in June 2012, with the focus on foreign policy:
For Barack Obama, a president who set out to restore good relations with the world in his first term, the world does not seem to be cooperating all that much with his bid to win a second....If anything, the dire headlines from around the world only reinforce an uncomfortable reality for this president and any of his successors: even the world’s last superpower has only so much control over events beyond its borders, and its own course can be dramatically affected in some cases. Whether from ripples of the European fiscal crisis or flare-ups of violence in Baghdad, it is easy to be whipsawed by events.