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Is Obama now irrelevant?

Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton's Democratic Party lost control of the House of Representatives in the midterm congressional elections. Thereafter, he felt the need to declare at a press conference that "the president is relevant here."

At that time, the new Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich, had "nationalized" that 1994 election by making it a referendum on Mr. Clinton. Having succeeded, Mr. Gingrich then dug in against the president's legislative efforts as a way to demonstrate Mr. Clinton's irrelevance.

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But the speaker's overreaching was his own undoing. In a subsequent showdown over closing the government, Mr. Gingrich got the blame and Mr. Clinton resurrected his fortunes with an aggressive television ad campaign, going on to re-election in 1996.

In light of Tuesday's sweeping Republican midterm success, President Obama now finds his own relevance deeply in question. The Republicans again made the election a referendum on the incumbent president, and it worked beyond their wildest hopes. It was easy to do, considering the series of the administration's mismanagement of the Obamacare rollout and scandals in the VA, IRS, Secret Service and other agencies under its supervision.

The obvious difference is that whereas Mr. Clinton had the time and opportunity to rebound in his re-election campaign two years later, Mr. Obama is a lame duck. Also, with much more serious challenges on his plate, especially in foreign policy, Mr. Obama has little more than two years to revive his political fortunes.

Because so much was riding publicly on retaining control of the Senate, the blow to the president is far greater than any of the Democratic losses sustained in the House or Senate.

In election night promises, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he intends to work with Mr. Obama to find common ground, but his track record clouds that prospect. It was Mr. McConnell, after all, who said throughout Mr. Obama's first four years that his prime objective was to make him "a one-term president."

Mr. McConnell's stated good intentions likely will run into stiff resistance from newly elected conservative Republicans, not to mention the wall already in place among carryover House GOP obstructionists who brought misery to Mr. Obama throughout his first six years.

White House aides have indicated the president intends to continue resorting to executive-branch orders to achieve objectives he can't get through a Congress fully in Republican hands. But that effort certainly will draw more hostility than ever now from the opposition party eager to assert its new clout on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Clinton in his second term managed to achieve some accommodations with a chastened Mr. Gingrich. But Mr. Obama has yet to demonstrate the temperament of the politically astute and wily Mr. Clinton, required as he will be to do business with either Mr. McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner. The speaker figures to have even more emboldened tea party members in his caucus, snapping at him.

A major frustration for the lame-duck president must be seeing the slowly improving economy, with millions of new jobs created and a jobless rate below 6 percent, having had no positive impact on the midterm voters. Mr. Obama continues to rule in a defensive crouch, still a captive of his domestic and foreign policy inheritances, as he tries to address his stated objective of changing the way Washington works.

The president's policy intentions abroad got little airing during the midterms. They were somehow subordinated to questions of his competence, reminiscent of the presidency of Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. Unlike Mr. Carter, Mr. Obama was able to be re-elected, which might have been expected to give him a smoother second term.

Instead, Barack Obama is back on his heels, with discontent within his own party and an opposition poised to make his life even more frustrating. It's a challenge that may seem overwhelming now. Four years ago, he declared the loss of the House in that previous midterm to be a "shellacking." This one was even worse and will require both relevance and resilience to pull off the kind of comeback Bill Clinton achieved 20 years ago.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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