Barack Obama was supposed to be the liberal version of Ronald Reagan. It turns out that he is--circa 1986, when Reagan's Administration was consumed by the Iran-contra scandal.
Or at least you would be forgiven for thinking so, given recent headlines. The scandals that have dominated the news lately aren't yet as damaging as Iran-contra, nor will they be, absent significant new revelations. In fact, they aren't even the most important thing that has gone wrong for Obama. The scandals aren't the cause of his second-term woes; they are a symptom of them. He is adrift and particularly vulnerable to events.
It was no secret what Obama believed would happen after his re-election. Republicans would, by his way of thinking, become more reasonable. They would say, "Aw, shucks, the President won again. Let's forget everything we said during his first term." As the President insisted over and over, the Republican "fever" would break once they realized they didn't have to try to defeat him.
This was a terrible misdiagnosis. Republicans didn't oppose a balanced approach to the federal debt or investments in green energy or the President's other major initiatives because of some irrational, anti-Obama fit; they opposed them out of principle. Their convictions weren't going to change after one election.
When Obama encountered a gop as opposed to tax increases and spending in 2013 as the one he had run against in 2012, he reverted to Plan B, which was to break House Republicans in the budget fights. He got off to a strong start in January's battle over the fiscal cliff, when he forced through a $600 billion tax increase amid embarrassing internal turmoil among congressional Republicans. Next came the fight over sequestration. The White House played it by the book--warning of dire consequences of the cuts--and got nowhere. The Republicans held together, and the public yawned. Plan B washed out.
Shortly thereafter, the President broke his sword on a minimalist gun-control measure that he couldn't get through a Democratic-controlled Senate. He put all his rhetorical force behind a proposal for universal background checks. He toured the country and made every possible use of the Newtown massacre. And still he came up short, losing key red-state Senate Democrats. The President lashed out at the GOP and Washington in general but was powerless to do anything about it.
He was asked at a press conference whether he lacked "juice" before anyone had even thought about the Cincinnati IRS office or learned of the AP subpoena. As much as anything, the scandals are filling a vacuum. The only big-ticket item likely to pass this year is immigration reform, and that is driven by a bipartisan coalition that can only be hindered by the President's active involvement, not helped.
What happened? The President misread his mandate, in the sense that he thought he had one. His mandate was that people liked him more than Mitt Romney. He didn't take the House, and while Democrats kept the Senate, centrist Democrats running for re-election in Republican states hold the balance of power. The governing forces in D.C. didn't accord with the ideological grandiosity of his second Inaugural or State of the Union addresses.