Second-term presidents in the past 30 years have had some pretty embarrassing news conferences, full of frank admissions of failure, submissive spasms of shame and groveling, grieving apologies.
Bill Clinton had to admit that he actually did have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky; George W. Bush finally thought of something he might have done wrong; his dad had to explain all those new taxes after his unequivocal pledge; and even Ronald Reagan ate crow over the Iran-Contra affair.
But there has never, ever, been a more pitiful presser than the one conducted last week by President Obama. In a nutshell, he said sure, everything’s a mess, but he just didn’t know. Introspective for the first time, he acknowledged he “fumbled the rollout” of Obamacare, said his “you can keep it” pledge “ended up not being accurate” and admitted that his “credibility” is in the dumper. And he tossed out this gem: “What we’re also discovering is that insurance is complicated to buy.” Ya think?
This second-term unraveling has beset nearly all modern presidents. Like Mr. Clinton before him (whose second-term agenda was derailed by a stained little blue dress), George W. Bush’s ambitious plans, including an overhaul of entitlement programs, died suddenly after the Hurricane Katrina debacle. His own party abandoned him on immigration reform, and he was left counting the days until he could go home to his Texas ranch. Even the Republican nominee for president didn’t want him around.
Almost the exact scenario has played out with Mr. Obama — the president’s credibility is shot, gone. His plan to revamp immigration? Dead. As is the rest of his legislative wish list. And we’ll have to see whether Hillary Rodham Clinton wants him anywhere near the campaign trail in 2016.
Funny, it was Mrs. Clinton’s husband who played a big role in the meltdown. Slick Willie, with an eye on his wife’s coming run, tossed out the idea that the president should — shocker — honor his commitment that “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” That gave fellow Democrats the cover to bail on the embattled president — and they did, in droves.
Twenty hours after Mr. Obama’s depressing presser, 39 Democrats joined Republicans to support the “Keep Your Health Plan Act of 2013.” And just like that, No. 44 became a lame duck, eviscerated and emasculated. The shutdown? Ancient history. The fractured Republican Party? Gone with the wind.
Instead, the headlines are suddenly focused on dissension in the Democratic Party, in Mr. Obama’s Cabinet, and in Congress, where lawmakers are running for cover over Obamacare, abandoning the party’s standard-bearer to save their own political skins. In the blink of an eye, Mr. Obama’s approval rating plunged to 39 percent — exactly where George W. Bush found himself after weeks of dire Katrina coverage.
“When you take a look at history, when presidents in their second terms drop on credibility, trust and approval, they never come back from that,” former Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd said last week. “When we look back three years from now at the end of his presidency, we’re going to all say this was the tipping point of his relevancy.”
And the president knows it. In his funereal news conference, he sought to once again sow division and dissension — his go-to M.O. In a desperate gambit, he suggested that insurers re-offer the plans they have been canceling because of Obamacare. The intent: If Americans pay more for health care under his program now, it’s not his fault — it’s those heartless insurance companies! He hopes the discord will help in 2014.
But deep down, he knows it won’t. And by Sunday, the president was back on the golf course, in a thick fog, on a cold and drizzly day. This time, though, the outing didn’t have the aura of a powerful man taking a break from his powerful post.
Instead, it felt more like a newly retired guy just looking to get out of the house for a bit.