by Jules Witcover

Probing questions at presidential news conferences sometimes have a way of getting their principals to reflect on their state of mind -- and at the same time the state their presidency, particularly when things aren't going well.

Back in 1995, when Bill Clinton was struggling against the onslaught of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his conservative "Contract With America," a reporter suggested the president had diminished influence. He noted that two major television networks had declined to cover live the news conference and asked: "Do you worry about making sure your voice is being heard in the coming months?"

Today, 18 years later, with the proliferation of presidential news coverage through cable, Internet and social media, the inquiry may seem quaint. But Clinton felt impelled to give assurance that he still carried weight.

"The Constitution gives me relevance," he insisted then. "The power of our ideas gives me relevance. The record we have built up over the last two years and the things we're trying to do to implement it gives me relevance. The president is relevant here, especially an activist president."

Clinton added that his relevance could be seen "in the fact that I am willing with work with Republicans. The question is, Are they willing to work with me?" Today, as Yogi Berra would say, it's deja vu all over again.

In President Obama's latest news conference, the straight-talking Jonathan Karl of ABC News posed basically the same question. He observed that the president was a hundred days into his second term, had just lost the gun control legislation he sought and the fiscal sequester remained in place, causing further governmental dysfunction.

Karl asked whether Obama worried that "you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through the Congress?" The president sounded dismayed, saying the question seemed to indicate "I should just pack up and go home." With a paraphrase of Mark Twain's reply to false reports of his death, he quipped that "rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point."

Like Clinton before him, Obama cited his willingness to work with the Republicans on Capitol Hill despite their repeated rebuffs of him. "You seem to suggest that somehow these folks over there have no responsibilities," he argued, "and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That's their job. ... I can't force the Republicans to embrace these common sense solutions."

He did, however, cite the reported bipartisan progress on immigration reform legislation, which notably he has left to congressional leaders both parties to shape with no presidential fingerprints on it. That fact in itself seems to question his relevance on the issue, or at least his ability to play any leadership role in the negotiations.

On the gnawing matter of the sequester, Obama acknowledged that "it's hurting our people and we need to lift it. What's clear is the only way we're going to lift it is we do a bigger deal that meets the test of lowering our deficit and growing our economy at the same time, and that's going to require some compromises on the part of both Democrats and Republicans."

So maybe it is the president's job to make the opposition "behave," about which he has been so frustratingly ineffective in more than four years of trying. His latest round of schmoozing with Republican members of Congress hasn't seemed to produce anything. That inability was particularly illustrated in the lost gun-control battle, in which he also failed to bring critical Senate Democrats in line.

In 1995-96, Bill Clinton benefited from Newt Gingrich's overreaching in their stare-down over closing the government, and his effective appeal to the public. Obama has tried some of the same in what has softly been called a "charm offensive." But all he has garnered has been more questioning about his supposed aloofness and difficulty in "connecting" -- something of which the ever-schmoozing Clinton never was charged.

Apparently, then, Obama has no alternative but to continue applying, in his own fashion, what "juice" he still has to break through the Washington dysfunction he pledged to untangle when first elected in 2008.


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Obama's Revealing Reflections | Politics