It's hard to remember a presidential contest receiving this much attention so long before the election cycle even began. We have the burbling question of whether Hillary Clinton will run, not to mention a look at the former secretary of State and her closest circle of advisers and supporters in a New York Times Magazine cover story; we've seen the drama around New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge scandal dominate the news for a couple of weeks; speculation abounds about whether Jeb Bush might make a bid; and Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have all attracted considerable attention over the past year. It's an unprecedented focus on a race that has been going on for a while already and won't even really heat up for another year.
Part of this comes from Republicans. Badly disappointed by 2012, when they blew a very winnable presidential race and lost—rather than gained—three Senate seats, coming up far short of a hoped-for Senate majority, Republicans have already moved on. For Democrats, who are increasingly pessimistic about winning a House majority this decade and are alarmed about the status of their Senate majority, which is teetering on a knife's edge, thinking about 2016 is a welcomed distraction from current problems.
It's also true that as far as Democrats are concerned, dreams of the Obama presidency being a second Camelot were dashed long ago. On Capitol Hill, few Democrats love, fear, or even respect their president. They no longer have any emotional bond or commitment to him, and they have begun to move on as well, thinking about better days ahead.
When Obama hits a high note, such as during his tribute to Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg and other badly wounded warriors from Afghanistan and Iraq, his eloquence is unmatched, and his words inspiring. The substance of his speeches, though, is often just thin gruel and wishful thinking. Sure, Obama can rise to the oratorical prowess of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. But when it comes to delivering the goods, with anything short of 59 or 60 Senate seats and the huge majorities his party had in the House back in 2009 and 2010, this administration has delivered very little, and that's what leaves so many Democrats shaking their heads.
The inimitable and indispensable Mike Allen wrote in his SOTU morning-after Politico Playbook,"Things are starting to work. We have a budget, we have a farm bill, there won't be a white-knuckle debt-limit stare-down. Both sides are at least flirting with immigration compromise. Both Obama and House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers gave upbeat speeches in hopes of keeping this momentum going. This is no grand bargain. But it's no longer grand dysfunction."
Allen is accurate on all of this, but if you look at the progress on the substantive matters he mentioned, Obama's role is tangential at best. I doubt that the White House can produce a picture of Obama, in his shirtsleeves, actually hammering out a deal on the farm bill.
The truth is, Congress has developed coping mechanisms that allow members to move modestly, with minimal, if any, presidential involvement. Similarly, the White House has signaled its intention to do what it can through executive orders and other actions that don't require congressional approval. In other words, each end of Pennsylvania Avenue has learned how to work around the other, given their inability to work with one another.
The end result is that Washington has begun to kind of work, through moves that can be made with minimal cross-branch or cross-aisle engagement. If the active involvement and close cooperation of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were needed for everything, the government wouldn't even be able to open its doors most days.
Seeing as how the present is so discouraging, it's little wonder that, to the extent possible, many have moved on and started thinking about the future. All we need is Scarlett O'Hara saying, "Tomorrow is another day." (Note to the young: That's a Gone With the Wind reference.)
This article appears in the February 1, 2014, edition of National Journal Magazine as Moving Right Along.