Early this month, President Barack Obama went down to Louisiana to eyeball the damage from BP's exploded oil rig, keep the cleanup crews on their toes — no version of "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" from him — and show the Gulf Coast states and the rest of the nation his concern. On May 3rd, The Washinton Post played the story precisely where it belonged — entombed in the middle of the page. In its placement, it said the president of the United States did not, in this case, matter all that much.
Everyone knew that Obama was merely showing that he was not George W. Bush. He was not going to ignore a calamity, especially one affecting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. On the other hand, we all knew that he could not reverse the winds or cork the spill. In fact, he could do precious little except show that he cared.
This was a symbolic moment — the tide, menacing the coast with oil, moving in its own way, just as events across the globe seem to be. We are accustomed to American presidents being supremely important, if for no other reason than that they command the world's mightiest military. But we ought to appreciate also that presidential importance, in terms of being able to influence events, is slipping.
In the Middle East, nothing Obama has done has made much of a difference. In Europe, the euro teeters. As critical as this currency is, it is far less important than the concept of European integration upon which it is based. We tend to forget that Europe is the home office of awful wars — twice in the last century we got involved — and if you include Russia as part of Europe, as some Russians insist, then we have to count the Cold War, too. As for Russia, it shrugs off American complaints and moves progressively backward — not a European democracy, just something else.
On the periphery of Europe is Turkey, seeking to reestablish some of the influence the Ottoman Empire once had in the region. It may also be reverting to a more Islamic state, possibly concluding that nearly a century of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secularism is enough. Whatever the case, there isn't much we can do about Turkey, either. It no longer needs the United States as a Cold War ally, and it even blocked military access to Iraq at the start of the war. The waning pull of the American present can no longer match the pull of the Ottoman past. Israel, beware.
China, too, is beyond our reach. In some ways, we need it more than it needs us. We owe Beijing money. We buy China's goods. We respect its growing might. We rue our diminishing power. We muffle our concern over human rights. We are a superpower. But against what?
American conservatives look at the defeats and disappointments, and they fulminate about Obama. They call him weak and inept — and surely in some areas he has been both. But they are wrong in thinking that another person would make much of a difference. Times have changed. America's power is diminished — relatively, for sure, but absolutely as well. As a superpower, America invaded Iraq. Saddam is dust. But that "brief" war is now in its eighth year.
In 1987, Paul Kennedy published The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. It created enormous buzz, because, among other things, it predicted the relative and absolute decline of the United States. Kennedy attributed this to military "overstretch" and deficit spending — problems that have since gone from the theoretical to the acute. In a sense, we have more wars than we have cash.
The need to mention Kennedy rankles. It suggests inevitability, as if America were the empire of Rome or Britain and also that the past is fated to be the future. That, though, does not have to be the case. We can spend less, tax more intelligently, abjure wars of choice, reform Congress, and stop confusing the celebrity of the presidency with actual power.
Obama is presiding over the unpresidable, overseeing the incomprehensible, the full panoply of meaningless power — Air Force One, Marine One, the limo, the motorcade, the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes — all amounting in this case to a man railing against the sea, a somber lesson for us all. The spill goes on. The war goes on. The debt grows — and so, for too many of us, does denial.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.