President Obama returned last night from a weeklong trip to Africa, seeking to position himself as part of ailing Nelson Mandela's legacy and generating strategic photo-ops. On the other side of the continent, Egypt is awash in revolution, with hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square railing against the American-backed president, with some chanting slogans against the American passivity in the face of crisis. The Washington Post editorialized Tuesday: "For months, as the Morsi government has taken steps to consolidate power, quash critics and marginalize independent civil society groups, President Obama and his top aides have been largely silent in public. No effort was made to use the leverage of U.S. aid to compel a change of policy."
While the president was in Africa, Secretary of State John Kerry spent time in Israel, using valuable political capital trying to jump-start peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, at a time when few serious foreign policy analysts believe it has any chance of succes—beyond garnering favorable press for trying. (The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg calls Kerry's a "delusion of the foreignpolicy elite" in his column today.) This, while the administration appears utterly feckless in neighboring Syria, where civil war worsens, chemical weapons-wielding dictator Bashar al-Assad strengthens his hold on power, and American influence dwindles. "The military situation in Syria is slipping away as the president ponders," Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl wrote last week.
And on the domestic front, Obama was comfortably traveling on Air Force One when a Treasury Department functionary announced late Tuesday it would be delaying the mandate that businesses provide health care for their employee—a crucial component in the health care law that is shaping up as the president's main legacy. Rather than give a speech explaining the delay, and informing the public about how this could affect their health care options, the administration dropped the bombshell news right before the July Fourth holiday weekend.
The administration is facing a crisis of competence. At a time when trust in government is already at an all-time low, the events of this past week illustrate the limits of this president's power. The White House seems more comfortable stage-managing the news than dealing with the uncomfortable crises that inevitably crop up. (If there's anything to learn from the Benghazi crisis, it was the administration's attentiveness to detail in how to avoid blame in the aftermath of the crisis but a lack of focus in how to react as the crisis was occurring.)
The other worrying sign, is that politics is getting in the way of smart policymaking. Wary of the last war in the Middle East, Americans don't want the United States to intervene in Syria. The White House, heeding the polls, gladly obliged, even figuring out ways to forestall proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people—the red line that the president famously set. Obama doesn't want to say anything to take sides between the Egyptian president he backed and the growing throngs of protesters, and then take ownership in a crisis that's showing no signs of abating. Politically speaking, it's a lose-lose situation.
On health care, with the 2014 midterms approaching and control of the Senate in play, the administration decided to buy time by delaying the employer mandate until after the elections. Former HHS spokesman Nick Papas said the delay was "about minimizing paperwork, not politics." But it's awfully politically convenient to delay implementation of a law that's been growing more unpopular and whose implementation is shaping up to be a "train wreck," in the words of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat.
Obama's second-term legacy is shaping up to be more about avoiding crises than accomplishing big things. Salvage the core of a health care law, avoid worst-case scenarios in Egypt and Syria, and don't get in the way of his party's efforts to win Republican support for a landmark immigration reform plan. It's a far cry from the idealism of his second inaugural. But at this point, the president needs to simply show that he's paying attention to the fires burning around him.