MARCH 8, 2014
WASHINGTON — IF you can’t spell it, you can’t get it.
President Obama pulled a Quayle Thursday night at a White House performance by the women of soul and muffed the title of Aretha Franklin’s anthem. “R-S-P-E-C-T,” he said, looking a bit confused and eliciting laughter.
When Patti LaBelle took the stage, she told Obama, “Baby, you’ve got swag.”
Swag and respect are exactly what the president needs. He’s got a swag gap with Russia. His administration, after belatedly figuring out what was going on in Ukraine, is improvising as the uber-swaggering Vladimir Putin once more rolls in with tanks anywhere he likes.
But the president is severely constrained in how he can respond, given that the Europeans are reluctant to be very punitive because they’re worried about their energy supplies and have to play nice with the bully on their borders.
He’s doing what seems appropriate at this point — putting a ban on U.S. visas, imposing financial sanctions on “individuals and entities” responsible for Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and trying to horse-whisper the Botoxed, bare-chested man on horseback whose eyes read “K.G.B.,” as John McCain likes to say.
The right wing seems risible, swooning over Pooty-Poot, as W. dubbed Putin. They gleefully claim the Russian strongman is Carterizing Obama and act huffy that the only one parachuting into Kiev is John Kerry. “What are you going to do, send the 101st Airborne into Crimea?” says Terry McCarthy, the president of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. “The way Republicans are dumping on the president, saying anything short of Armageddon shows that he’s weak, is silly. It’s kind of shocking that foreign policy, which used to be nonpartisan, now becomes partisan so quickly.”
Speaker John Boehner said congressional Republicans were “trying to give the president tools that he might employ that would strengthen his hand in dealing with this very difficult problem.”
More calculating conservatives pounced. Trying to rehabilitate himself, Marco Rubio told a CPAC audience here that America must “stand up to the spread of totalitarianism.”
Sarah Palin, who seems ever more viperish, deployed her Yoda syntax with Sean Hannity: “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”
Actually, the jeans the president wore in the Oval Office, talking to Putin on the phone last weekend, looked good.
And his Russia response is a positive contrast with Syria, where Obama came across as naval-gazing and feckless when he dithered and then drew a “red line” against Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons. He was still explaining to the press why he had decided on military action while Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the Brits were yanking the rug out from under him.
The place where Obama really looks weak right now is at home.
Even after Democrats changed the filibuster rule and rigged the game in the Senate to get nominees through on a majority vote, the White House got whacked over its nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
Bryan Cranston has said he hopes Obama comes to see his new L.B.J. play on Broadway to learn a little about horse-trading. The sooner, the better. The president and Harry Reid upended the entire Senate to get people like Debo Adegbile through, and they couldn’t get him through — and in the area of civil rights, so crucial to Obama’s legacy.
Obama called the defeat “a travesty,” but the White House seemed oblivious to the fact that they were putting Democratic senators in red states in a squeeze between the Fraternal Order of Police and civil rights groups. Adegbile had worked on an N.A.A.C.P. legal team that filed a Supreme Court brief in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a writer and former Black Panther convicted in the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal called himself a political prisoner and turned into such an international cause célèbre that a Paris suburb named a street for him.
If Obama was determined to choose Adegbile, his team needed to sell him adeptly and promptly. But Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said there were still “open wounds” about Faulkner in his state, and by the time Casey and six other Democrats began to run away, it was too late.
It also didn’t help Obama’s swag that Reid and Nancy Pelosi peremptorily declared the president’s trade agenda D.O.A. for this session, showing that he doesn’t have the juice to override them on a key part of his economic plan. If the president doesn’t get it together, he’s headed for a big, bad midterm “thumpin’ ” in the memorable word of W., who experienced one six years into his reign.
It’s tricky for Democrats: Obama is unpopular, so they want to distance themselves from him in the tough races in red states. But the more they run away from him, the weaker he looks and the more unpopular he gets. (Gallup has his approval rating dropping to 41 percent, a danger zone for Democrats running for re-election.)
If the Republicans win the Senate, they’ll get in and find out they can’t pass legislation either. Then they’ll look bad just in time to help make a Democratic presidential candidate look good.