When Barack Obama was a newbie president, there was no shortage of ambition or lack of confidence in the government he was about to lead. Government should be seen as a force for good, not evil. Sure, he told us, it needed to be "smarter and better," but that could?and would?happen under his watch.
No doubt about it, Republicans have latched on to a red hot potato when it comes to the controversy of who-did-what-when in Benghazi.
It's a political axiom that the closer Congress gets to an election, the less work it gets done.
It's a cliche of American presidential politics -- the president we elect is always a reaction to what came before. As in: Nixonian shenanigans eventually gave rise to Jimmy Carter's self-righteousness. Clintonesque parsing gave way to George W. Bush's plain speaking. Bush's plain speaking begat Barack Obama's lofty speechifying.
As the story of the Obamacare website fiasco unfolds, senior administration aides tell me that the President is "mad, frustrated and angry."
Irony is a part of life, the cliché goes. And right now, President Barack Obama is living the part, in a big way: He's the civil libertarian defending an activist drone program. He's the liberal with a spy agency caught eavesdropping on the private conversations of friendly leaders. And he's the high-tech health care reformer whose website got stuck at Go.
This isn't the idealism of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
All presidential decisions are, in the end, difficult and complex. And under any circumstance, the decisions on issues of war (surgical strikes included) are agonizing. The decision to use force -- the repercussions, the cost in blood and treasure, the geostrategic implications -- is complicated and the implications obviously immense.
Let me just start by saying this: Redemption, political or otherwise, is a good thing. And by and large, voters are amenable to proffering forgiveness -- especially when they believe the candidate is making a good-faith effort to reform, atone and emerge as a chastened and wiser person.
Since President Obama seems to be a reflective soul, he must be reflecting on the irony of his latest predicament: as the man who came into office promising to change everything and who instead seems to have let much of what he promised to fix only get worse.
One of the most perverse results of the IRS's lame, overzealous -- and possibly criminal -- behavior in looking into the tax-exempt applications of assorted advocacy groups is this: They're a lot safer from scrutiny today than they were yesterday.
Ever since Watergate became the shorthand for a government run amok, the political cliché of our time has been about the political lesson of that era: That the coverup can be worse than the crime.
It's not often that a presidential to-do list (and legacy-making agenda) comes down to a couple of key weeks, but here we are: gun control, immigration reform and the budget -- all front and center, right now.
So it's good to see that the president has finally started calling some Republicans. He's even invited some to share a meal. And not just moderates, but also those who have been his most vocal opponents -- like John McCain and his buddy Lindsey Graham.
No matter how hard politicians try, party reinventions are never pretty -- and hardly ever subtle. The trick is twofold: First, tell voters you weren't really wrong -- your message just wasn't getting through. Next, shift positions, without admitting you had to change positions to survive.
So I remember thinking, when Congress and President Obama concocted the supercommittee on the deficit -- and the fiscal cliff as a last resort if all else failed -- that it was a generally boneheaded, albeit necessary, idea.
In watching Mitt Romney's painful -- and self-destructive -- gaffe about the "47 percenters," it at first seemed inexplicable, as if the man was writing off half of the electorate.
As the presidential campaign veers off onto the Bain Capital ramp, the predictable arguments ensue: Is the turn simply a political attack meant to distract from bad economic news? (So says Mitt Romney). Or is it an important, valid argument at the heart of the contest? (So says President Barack Obama.)
As the saying goes about political parties and their candidates: Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.
It's that time in the presidential cycle again. Mitt Romney, presumptive GOP nominee, appoints a trusted adviser to lead his vice presidential search. The questionnaires are readied; the real level of interest of the contenders is gauged (and all public protestations of noninterest dutifully disregarded.)
There are plenty of ways to game the upcoming Supreme Court decision on health care reform, and they've all been said: President Obama loses in court, he wins with his base. Or it's a severe blow, potentially fatal. Or Republicans benefit if they win, because they were "right" all along. Or the GOP loses, because it has to figure out what to offer for health care instead.
So we're at a point in the campaign where health care reform is about to go on trial at the Supreme Court, unemployment remains high and gas prices are skyrocketing.
For months now, the GOP has been complaining about Barack Obama's class warfare: He's pitting the wealthy against the middle class. He's unfairly asking the rich to pay more taxes. He's dividing the country along economic lines for his own political agenda.
So after all of this drama in the Republican race, we have two major candidates with some very basic questions left unanswered: For Mitt Romney, it's the most basic query of all -- "Who am I?" (Moderate or conservative? Warm or cold? Very rich or very, very rich?) As for Newt Gingrich, he's got to explain to voters that "I'm-not-who-you-think-I-am." (And then behaves as the angry, unpredictable man they think he is.)
No doubt about it, the Republican presidential candidates are reaching a critical point: It's less than one month before the Iowa caucuses. A majority of GOP voters -- and Iowa caucus-goers -- say they could still change their minds. The president has thrown down the gauntlet on tax cuts for the middle class, and the GOP needs to speak with one voice in response. It's decision time, and there are real questions that need to be answered with clarity.
It's an audition without end, because the Republicans still can't figure out how to cast the lead role.
It's hard to remember a presidential candidate who seemed more, er, unacquainted with the national dialogue -- or presidential prerequisites -- than Herman Cain.
When you consider the array of public men who have been forced, in one way or another, to come clean on their bad behavior, the list is not insubstantial: a president (Bill Clinton), presidential candidates (John Edwards, Gary Hart), governors (Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer), senators (John Ensign, David Vitter). And that's just the top tier.
Call me crazy, but I recall when presidential candidates ran for the high office because they had things to say. The notion went like this: I have ideas that I think will be great for the country. I have thought about them, vetted them with experts, spoken about them throughout my career. I have refined them, many times, even changed some. And now I think it's time to run for the presidency, armed with those ideas to present to the nation.
After watching the GOP presidential debate the other night, it was hard to avoid this conclusion: Mitt Romney looks more and more like the GOP presidential nominee. He's the best debater. He's got his issues and his rejoinders down pat. He brushes away his opponents like lint on his lapel. And all with such ease.
So now that the Republican Party has dated just about everyone in the field, the question remains: What about the fellow your parents tried to fix you up with in the first place? Does he look any better now? Are you ready to get serious about him?
It's a problem that has been around for awhile, and the longer it stays, the tougher it is to reverse. That's because it's a riddle that's almost impossible to resolve: Americans want the government to fix our problems, but they don't trust the government to do it.
What did you do over your summer vacation?
Ever heard of a State of the Union speech in September?
So all the congressional leaders and the president are locked in a room. They all have one goal: raising the debt ceiling. They all agree it's important. They also agree that it's urgent, because by August 2, the United States will have run out of money to pay its bills.
Call me old-fashioned, but when the president and congressional leaders get into a tussle over who should be "leading" the country in matters of real national consequence, I feel like sending them to their rooms.
After George W. Bush famously strode onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 in front of a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," there's no way a politician would emulate that now-derided photo op. Arrogant, self-assured and -- most of all -- wrong, it's a place no leader wants to find himself.
It was hard to miss, even if you weren't looking for it. The Republican Party -- once identified and driven by its hawks -- was morphing into a party driven by its bean counters.
So Sarah Palin walks into a Pennsylvania coffee shop, virtually unannounced. She sits down with a bunch of guys, gets her picture taken and is asked whether she would declare her candidacy right there.
It's unusual, to say the least, for a presidential candidate to have a defining campaign moment on Week One of the campaign, but Newt Gingrich never disappoints: Right out of the box on Sunday TV, fresh from his presidential announcement, he declared the House GOP plan for Medicare "right-wing social engineering." Then he went on to explain how he still supports individual mandates in health care -- despite the fact that the mandates are the key to the Republican attacks on the president's health care law.
On January 2, 1960, John F. Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy. In a short statement, he declared that "the presidency is the most powerful office in the Free World" and outlined the issues of the day.
Osama bin Laden is dead, but the debate about torture lives on.
In the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, a picture is emerging of a long, complex, dangerous and circuitous route to the compound that was the site of the special forces attack.
In conversations with Republican strategists and officeholders, the importance of the upcoming election is never understated: Historic, some say. A must-win for the GOP. An election of great consequence for the nation.
At this stage in a presidential campaign, there's always someone -- and sometimes it's more than one -- who flirts with running and thinks a few things, as in: Why not me? (I'm smarter than the rest of those clowns!) What's the worst that could happen? (I'll be in demand on the lecture circuit!)
In a way, President Barack Obama's budget speech Wednesday was all about timing: He had played the adult in a successful congressional lame-duck session in December. He reprised the role in averting the government shutdown crisis.
If life (and politics) sometimes seems stuck in the ninth grade, the recent gyrations between the White House and congressional Republicans is a perfect case in point. The topic: averting a government shutdown. The meeting: on Capitol Hill between House GOPers and Senate Democrats.
To recap: The United States and its allies are scrambling to defeat Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya. There's a no-fly zone, a freezing of assets, threats about prosecution in international courts and an arms embargo. We're trying to get Gadhafi to surrender -- and, hopefully, leave.
The story of the Libyan intervention may pain some of the most ardent believers in the proposition that it is America's role to take the lead, all of the time, everywhere.
President Obama, one might argue, is someone we've gotten to know over the past two years. At first, he was Zelig incarnate, seemingly everywhere, all the time. That's calmed down a bit, but by now his nature is clear: a deep temperamental caution, served with a side order of prudence.
Well, we said we wanted budget cutters, so that's what we have.
So Republicans are now in charge in the House, and they're having some growing pains. It seems that their new flock is filled with independent sorts who may listen to their leaders, but still go their own way.
Watching the administration try to find the right balance in its response to the crisis in Egypt is like seeing the public face of the foreign policy establishment change before our very eyes:
It's easy to see why any politician would want to avoid making huge promises on the deficit. After all, it's out of control, unpredictable and chances are you'll fail anyway.
OK, you've got Palin fatigue. Not to worry. So does much of the country: The latest CNN poll shows that 56 percent of Americans view her unfavorably.
It is probably some form of poetic justice that, in reacting to the attempted murder of a congresswoman and the murder of a judge, some of the political discourse has devolved into an unhelpful and unenlightening argument that goes something like this: It's your fault; no, it's your fault.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about whether big men should cry, given Speaker-elect John Boehner's soggy "60 Minutes" on Sunday. Just for the record: fine by me, no big deal, even a good thing.
So I clearly remember one morning last summer when the issue of the Bush-era tax cuts came up during a breakfast with a top Democrat. I naturally asked what the party's game plan might be on extending those tax cuts. Would they make the issue of tax cuts for the middle class a centerpiece of the fall campaign? Or would they punt until after the election?
It's hard, when you've run something, to come back and realize you're not going to be in charge anymore. Democrats have been demoted to minority status in the House, and it's probably not much fun. No chairmanships to dole out, no rules to write, no votes to pass much of anything.
It took just eight days after the election for the two deficit commission chairmen to pounce. And the title page of their draft version of budget cuts doesn't mince words: "The problem is real -- the solution is painful -- There's no easy way out -- Everything must be on the table -- and Washington must lead."
Sometimes it seems as if we've seen this movie before: Voters want change, and a candidate's long résumé is not necessarily a plus.
Scenes from a campaign:
It is the fall of the Democrats' discontent or, more accurately, the voters' discontent.
Once upon a time, back after Barack Obama's impressive 2008 presidential win, defeated and depressed Republicans had to do something to prove they still had a pulse. So leaders went out of their way -- and it wasn't easy -- to recruit stellar, well-known, GOP candidates for Senate: a governor in Charlie Crist of Florida, a secretary of state in Trey Grayson of Kentucky, a seasoned and popular congressman in Mike Castle of Delaware.
There are just times, when you are president of the United States, that formally speaking to the American people is part of the job.