WASHINGTON - During a news conference, then-President Bill Clinton, who was going through one of the many rough patches of his White House days, was asked if he was still relevant.
Startled and then grim-faced, Clinton struggled to assert that, yes, the president of the United States was relevant. Awkward.
President Obama is going through something similar. His poll numbers are abysmal. Dweebs no longer shout that he lies but walk out while he's speaking. His pleas to Congress on behalf of popular programs such as providing workers with a living wage fall on deaf ears.
Obama is too classy to jump up and down, red-faced, shouting for us to pay attention. Nonetheless his strategy might have made a mistake. Frustrated that the divided Congress and balking Republicans in particular are giving him little but grief, Obama keeps declaring he's going to do whatever he can by executive action to push his agenda. Not surprisingly, Republicans have been jumping up and down, red-faced, shouting he's ignoring them.
Better that he had just gone ahead and done what he wanted without raising a red flag by announcing that he "will not stand still" on the sidelines while Congress bickers ineffectually.
Meanwhile, Obama's huge campaign apparatus is switching loyalties to Hillary Clinton before she has even affirmed she wants to be president. The implication is that Obama is done; stick a fork in him, despite the very obvious fact that he still has three years in office. Darn right that politics ain't bean bag.
In a contemplative interview recently, Obama noted the passage of history, remarking that presidents come and go and contribute bits and pieces. Oh. Oh. The legacy thing has started to bug him.
It is not too late for Obama to make his presence felt. There are signs that mainstream Republicans, even mercurial House Speaker John Boehner, are feeling voter ire for dismissing everything Obama tries to do out of hand. Maybe they'll be a little more responsive on issues of national importance. After two years of arguing, the House passed a farm bill although poor children in 15 states will get only half the food they eat now even after a huge cut last November.
There are so many issues to worry us. Immigration. Withdrawal from Afghanistan. A livable wage. Nuclear negotiations with Iran. Middle East peace. Affordable health care. The disappearance of the middle class. A crumbling infrastructure. Children educated for the future. Equal pay for equal work. Energy independence. Keeping guns out of the hands of deranged men and women. Closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Retirement security. Reforming the tax code.
Executive actions, which easily may be overturned and often are, are not a solution to any of these issues.
Obama is not an underachiever. But vowing to use executive actions seems like giving up. He's trying to make Americans elect Democrats in the November congressional elections to help push his agenda. That's a lot of eggs in one fragile basket.
Obama hopes to convince voters that Republicans are Neanderthals (sorry, cave people) on raising the minimum wage, women's health issues, war, gun control and income equality. If Republicans are smart, they'll prove him wrong. That's an "if" the size of Mount Rushmore.
Historians think Clinton wasted too much of his presidency. There was no huge war; no domestic disturbance consumed national energies; the economy was growing. But the big issues were kicked down the road, one reason Clinton's working to make his wife president.
We revive a pet peeve with Obama - Republicans and even members of his own party do not fear him because he has caved too many times. Let's face it; successful presidents can't be nice guys all the time. They have to threaten, not just cajole, as Lyndon Johnson and Theodore Roosevelt often proved.
We need Obama to toughen up. If not, the nation again will have wasted time, and the next president will be weakened before he/she takes office.
Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.