Is Obama already a lame-duck president?

The president is being forced to defend his relevance even though his second term is just beginning

Is President Obama or his Republican adversaries to blame?
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

After defeats on gun control and the sequester budget cuts in the first 100 days of his second term, President Obama faced pointed questions at a Tuesday news conference about whether he is out of the "juice" he needs to get his agenda through Congress. Obama bristled. "Maybe I should just pack up and go home," he said. "Golly. You know, I think it's a little, as Mark Twain said, you know, 'Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated' at this point." Obama said that, instead of criticizing him for failing to get Republicans "to behave," reporters should be grilling GOP leaders about why they won't compromise and "do what's right for their constituencies and for the American people."

The clash prompted some observers to say Obama may be turning into a lame duck just three months into his final term. "A president is in trouble when he's forced to defend his relevancy, as Bill Clinton did 18 years ago," or to quote Mark Twain's famous line about premature obituaries, says Ron Fournier at National Journal. "Not wrong — just 'exaggerated.' Not forever — just 'at this point.'" Obama rightly noted that his power is limited in the face of GOP Senate filibusters, a hyper-partisan House, and polarized media and voters, says Fournier. "But the president risks losing the public's faith when he waves the white flag too often, especially on problems that can be fixed. Blaming the GOP and larger structural problems don't help the country, much less his legacy."

Obama's supporters, however, say it's ludicrous to blame the president for GOP lawmakers' determination to block him at every turn. "Much of Washington is in the grips of what several observers call the 'Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power,'" says Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect. The Green Lanterns of comic book fame are a corps of space police, each with a power ring emitting a green energy. "With it, Lanterns can do anything — the only limit is their will," explains Bouie. Deluded journalists expect presidents to have the same fantastic power as super heroes. That's just not so:

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Pundits and journalists from across the spectrum seem to understand the president as a singular figure whose power flows from his willingness to "get things done." If Obama can't get legislation through Congress, for example, it's because he hasn't been willing to pressure, cajole and influence. What this ignores is that Obama can't actually force individual lawmakers to do anything — after all, they come to Congress with their own interests and priorities.

In other words, congressional Republicans have agency, and at a certain point, they need to be held accountable for their actions. It's not on Obama that Republicans refused to expand background checks. To treat it as if it were obscures the realities of policymaking and helps Republicans evade responsibility for their choices. [American Prospect]

Not everyone, however, buys the argument that uncooperative Republicans are the ones who should be getting grilled for failing to get things done. "Actually, it is [Obama's] job to get them to behave," says Maureen Dowd at The New York Times. Asked about the hunger strike by terror-war prisoners at Guantanamo, for example, Obama said he was recommitting to closing the controversial prison and moving its inmates to a Supermax prison in Illinois, "Gitmo North." The thing is, the prisoners aren't "hunger-striking for a change in scenery," Dowd says. They're protesting unlimited detention without rights, and Obama has no fix for that, which seems to be at the root of his problem overall:

The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It's called leadership. He still thinks he'll do his thing from the balcony and everyone else will follow along below. That's not how it works. [New York Times]

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.