COLD WEATHER COMING

David Shribman

WASHINGTON -- So much about Washington seems unchanging from decade to decade, from generation to generation: The Capitol dome, shimmering in the blue-black sky of evening. The monuments, bleached white and inspiring reflection (Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson) and remembrance (World War II, Korea, Vietnam). The White House, majestic in its simple elegance. The tourists, clutching cameras and high hopes for the American experiment, even with more than a dozen dead of gun wounds a few blocks away.

And yet in a political system designed to be forever new -- the regular rotation of House members in biennial elections, the immutable four-year rhythms of a presidential term -- there is something new but deeply unsettling about the capital as summer melts into autumn this month. It is as if the center of gravity of the political system has shifted, or as if a system of exquisite balance has been disrupted.

It isn't any one thing but an accumulation of factors that have contributed to the word that dare not speak its name -- the word (malaise) that Jimmy Carter never actually uttered in a 1979 speech remembered in presidential infamy.

In its modern incarnation it has robbed Barack Obama's second term of its new-car smell, added a dreary sense of deja vu to the looming budget showdown, stolen away in the night with America's reputation as the indispensable nation and transformed the last remaining shreds of contemplation into mere contention. Here are some of the symptoms:

-- The president has lost his gyroscope.

Even in the most discouraging moments of his first term, President Obama knew where he was going and had a sure notion of how to get there. No more, and the Syria episode, now being celebrated by some as an example of the president's shrewdness (the end of Syrian chemical weapons without the start of American bombing!), is the principal example. The president's moral outrage was appropriate after last month's gas attacks, and the nation shared his sense of shock even as Americans were not in awe of his response, which was changeable if not inscrutable.

Still unanswered: the real timetable for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons, the real motive of Vladimir Putin and the resolution of Obama's vow that Bashar Assad should pay a price for his actions.

-- The country has lost, at least in the short term, its pre-eminence in world diplomacy.

For two generations, the American narrative -- this was decidedly not the Soviet narrative, nor, after 1989, the Russian narrative -- was that the United States continually had to respond to Moscow's nefarious gambits: 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia, 1980 in Afghanistan, along with shady episodes of agitation in Nicaragua and Africa and support for rebellions in Korea and Vietnam.

In all those situations, at least in their renderings in the West, Moscow wore the black hat or hid one in the top drawer or back closet. Now, Putin, no exemplar of democratic values, has upended the narrative. He's taken the initiative in Syria, and in the United Nations, too, and he's the one wearing the white hat. "The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker," the president whose style most resembles Putin's, Richard M. Nixon, said in his 1969 inaugural address. Putin is luxuriating in that title.

-- The president has lost his influence on Capitol Hill.

Obama plainly could not carry his own party on Syria, which is one reason reasonable people might wonder why he decided in the first place -- no, it was actually the second place -- to kick the Syria can up to Capitol Hill. In doing so he only increased the specific gravity of an extremely unlikely coalition of liberals and libertarian conservatives that was drawn together by concerns over the growth of government surveillance and now comprises an unwieldy peacenik-isolationist caucus that could be dangerous to Obama in the coming years.

Not that the president has the customary prerogatives granted to chief executives, such as the benefit of the doubt among members of his own party on important appointments. Only a day before Lawrence H. Summers withdrew from consideration as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, three members of the Senate Banking Committee, including a reliable ally, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, indicated they would not back the president's choice.

-- The president has little reason for hope for the way forward.

New tax, spending and debt-ceiling confrontations are just around a dangerous corner. The president has to be admired for his patience, commitment and resilience as he bounces from one economic crisis to another, but there is little hope he will get his way, or even get a reprieve from House Republicans, who are not inclined or motivated to compromise with him.

Instead, these House Republicans took heart from last week's Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll underlining the deep skepticism Americans still feel about the health care law that has become known as Obamacare. (Ronald Reagan once marveled that the opponents who described his economic policies as Reaganomics abandoned the name once it seemed his policies were working. Obama no doubt harbors the same hope.)

That opinion poll showed that less than a third of Americans thought the measure was a good idea, as opposed to 44 percent who condemned it. This was accompanied by poll findings showing that two-thirds of those polled acknowledged they didn't understand the law very well or only partially -- not a good sign for the president nor testimony to his marketing acumen.

The House Republicans no doubt will vote to repeal Obamacare a few dozen more times, a meaningless gesture except that it reinforces their determination to frustrate the president. Until the Summers withdrawal, the president was pinning his hopes on gaining GOP support for his Fed choice in the Senate (which, unlike the House, has confirmation powers). The president cannot count on Republican support for anything in the House.

The result is a season of frustration for Obama and few prospects for improvements in the political atmosphere for the remainder of the year. Then comes winter. All signs point to a cold one.

COPYRIGHT 2013 THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

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