- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2011


During his first two years in office, President Obama was a powerhouse. He used his majorities in Congress to ram through legislation that ranged from financial regulation to health care reform. He arguably accomplished more in the 111th Congress than any chief executive that came before him.

But that’s over.

The president is no longer a commanding presence. Thanks in large part to his heavy-handed rule during his first two years in office, the House of Representatives is now in Republican hands. The Senate is only nominally in Democratic control. What Mr. Obama could once accomplish by sheer force of numbers, he can only dream about doing today.

Except, in fact, he’s actually reached his dream. Getting things done is overrated for a president.

The heavy burden of expectation that he will pass this bill or that one is no longer hanging around his neck. He doesn’t have the votes to do anything of major consequence, and voters don’t expect him to.

He and Congress would be considered successful if they manage to approve a budget plan, raise the federal debt ceiling and keep the government operating. In other words, nothing more than the basics.

What he is free to do instead is talk. And that he can do very well.

Take his State of the Union address last week. He gave two entirely different and contradictory speeches during his hour at the podium, and no one much complained.

For the first half-hour, he gave a Democratic rah-rah speech, filled with proposals to expand the reach of government into education, energy research and construction projects. During the second half-hour he turned toward the center and swore off earmarks, promised to freeze discretionary spending and proposed to overhaul the tax code and federal bureaucracy.

Which President Obama is he? The answer: both.

Or at least he can claim to be. He doesn’t have to make good on anything he says. All he has to do is say what he wants to do and then blame that awful, balky Congress for failing to follow through. And, for the most part, he will be telling the truth.

In the meantime, he will get credit for saying the things that appeal to one side or the other of the political spectrum. Or, in his case, both sides at the same time and, in the end, no one can fault him for trying.

He has become the pundit president. He is more commentator than leader. And, as a political matter, that’s a very good place for him to be, especially as he rolls toward a re-election.

The situation helps him in foreign affairs, too. With the Arab world exploding in protest, especially in Egypt, Mr. Obama is largely powerless. He dare not intervene militarily. He might go along with a Congress that shuts down foreign aid to Egypt, though that wouldn’t happen soon if it happens at all.

What he can do is talk. He can take the high ground - rhetorically - and offer words of praise for democracy, the rule of law and nonviolence. He can act like Fox News’ Brit Hume or CBS News’ Bob Schieffer from the commentator’s seat and opine about the wisdom of restraint and the virtues of the technology that have allowed average citizens to express themselves freely against the oppression of dictators.

In fact, that’s exactly what he’s done.

To be fair, the president’s forum carries a good deal of clout. Words uttered from the bully pulpit of the presidency have more weight than an average pundit’s - much more. He can inspire action by others and help America’s reputation in the world.

But they are still just words. That’s what this president has left in his quiver.

Americans appear to like a president who talks rather than acts. Mr. Obama’s job-approval ratings have climbed steadily since the end of last year. The less he does, and the more he talks, the better people like his performance in office.

His prospects for re-election are also enhanced by this new reticence. He can hold out hope for change and not mess up that vision by putting his promises into law. Elections are about the future, and President Obama can raise the prospect of all sorts of futures and not ruin those images with facts.

A president who stands above the fray can appear to control what’s going on without actually having to do so. President Obama has become such a president.

He should feel lucky to be the pundit in chief.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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