Fate is fickle, power cyclical, and nothing is new under the sun. Especially in Washington, where after every election the losing party is sagely instructed to confess sin, rend garments and rethink its principles lest it go the way of the Whigs. And where the victor is hailed as the new Caesar, facing an open road to domination.
And where President Barack Obama, already naturally inclined to believe his own loftiness, graciously accepted the kingly crown and proceeded to ride his re-election success to a crushing victory over the GOP at the fiscal cliff, leaving a humiliated John Boehner and Co. with nothing but naked tax hikes.
Thus emboldened, Obama turned his inaugural and State of the Union addresses into a left-wing dream factory, from his declaration of war on global warming (on a planet where temperatures are the same as 16 years ago and in a country whose CO2 emissions are at a 20-year low) to the invention of new entitlements — e.g., universal preschool for 5-year-olds — for a country already drowning in debt.
To realize his dreams, Obama sought to fracture and neutralize the congressional GOP as a prelude to reclaiming the House in 2014. This would enable him to fully enact his agenda in the final two years of his presidency, usually a time of lame-duck paralysis. Hail the Obama juggernaut.
Well, that story — excuse me, narrative — lasted exactly six months. The Big Mo is gone.
It began with the sequester. Obama never believed the Republicans would call his bluff and let it go into effect. They did.
Taken by surprise, Obama cried wolf, predicting the end of everything we hold dear if the sequester was not stopped. It wasn’t. Nothing happened.
Highly embarrassed, and determined to indeed make (bad) things happen, the White House refused Republican offers to give it more discretion in making cuts. Bureaucrats were instructed to inflict maximum pain from minimal cuts, as revealed by one memo from the Agriculture Department demanding agency cuts that the public would feel.
Things began with the near-comical cancellation of White House tours and ended with not-so-comical airline delays. Obama thought furious passengers would blame the GOP. But isn’t the executive branch in charge of these agencies? Who thinks that a government spending $3.6 trillion a year can’t cut 2 percent without furloughing air traffic controllers?
Looking not just incompetent at managing budgets but cynical for deliberately injuring the public welfare, the administration relented. Congress quickly passed a bill giving Obama reallocation authority to restore air traffic control. Having previously threatened to veto any such bill, Obama caved. He signed.
Not exactly Appomattox, but coming immediately after Obama’s spectacular defeat on gun control, it marked an administration that had lost its “juice,” to paraphrase a charming question at the president’s news conference.
For Obama, gun control was a political disaster. He invested capital. He went on a multicity tour. He paraded grieving relatives. And got nothing. An assault-weapons ban — a similar measure had passed the Congress 20 years ago — lost 60-40 in a Senate where Democrats control 55 seats. Obama failed even to get mere background checks.
All this while appearing passive, if not helpless, on the world stage. On Syria, Obama was nervously trying to erase the WMD red line he had so publicly established. On Benghazi, he stonewalled accusations that State Department officials wishing to testify are being blocked.
He is even taking heat for the Boston bombings. Every day brings another revelation of signals missed beforehand. And his post-bombing pledge to hunt down those responsible was mocked by the scandalous Mirandizing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, gratuitously shutting down information from the one person who knows more than anyone about possible still-existent explosives, associates, trainers, future plans, etc.
Now, the screw will undoubtedly turn again. If immigration reform passes, Obama will be hailed as the comeback kid, and a new “Obama rising” narrative proclaimed.
This will overlook the fact that immigration reform has little to do with Obama and everything to do with GOP panic about the Hispanic vote. In fact, Obama has been asked by congressional negotiators to stay away, so polarizing a figure has he become.
Nonetheless, whatever happens, the screw will surely turn again, if only because of media boredom. But that’s the one constant of Washington political life: There are no straight-line graphs. We live from inflection point to inflection point.
And we’ve just experienced one. From king of the world to dead in the water in six months. Quite a ride.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.