As the final two weeks of the midterm congressional campaign unwind, President Barack Obama is searching for the political magic that put him in the Oval Office six years ago but that seems to have slipped away.

A week ago, he was back in his hometown of Chicago expressing pleasure at seeing many of the old friends and supporters at a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser, part of a final push in what he called "a lot of just nail-biter races" around the country. He professed to be upbeat, observing that "when people ask me how I'm doing, I say actually I'm doing pretty good. ... I love the work. It is an extraordinary privilege to every single day work on behalf of the American people."


But the public opinion polls that haunt him, giving only an approval rating in the range of 40 percent, suggest a less optimistic view. So does his last-ditch travel schedule, which is taking him predominantly to strongly Democratic districts and states. While many party candidates haven't exactly hung out Not Wanted signs, they haven't welcomed him with open arms either. They have preferred to have first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden or Bill and Hillary Clinton come speak for them.

A particularly embarrassing snub has been the ludicrous refusal of the Democratic senatorial candidate in Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is trying to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to say whether she voted for the presidential nominee of her own party in 2008 and 2012.

Nor has Mr. Obama helped himself or his party's candidates by pointing out that while he is not on the ballot this time around, the issues he stands for are at stake. Some Democratic candidates are distancing themselves from them and by implication from him. Even his old political swami, David Axelrod, has called Mr. Obama's comment a political mistake.

It doesn't seem to help the embattled White House incumbent, either, for others to continue to point out that he inherited a mess from his Republican predecessor, both domestically and in foreign policy, in the form of the Great Recession and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither do his tempered responses to the new challenges of Russia's adventurism in Ukraine and emergence of the new Islamic State.

Yet Mr. Obama must do his best to rekindle the old magic that drew much of its energy from the historic breaking of the racial barrier in the Oval Office, and from his own personal charisma as a promised agent of change in Washington. That appeal eroded in the face of resolute Republican obstructionism, especially in the House.

Beyond that, the series of administration scandals tarring the Veterans Health Administration, the IRS and the Secret Service, not to mention the fumbled rollout of Obamacare, all have raised an issue of incompetence, eagerly seized on by the opposition party. Even Mr. Obama's response to the Ebola tragedy has not been spared partisan exploitation.

It may not be too much to suggest now that his controlled and cautious leadership style has left the president vulnerable to that allegation as well. Mr. Obama has become an easy mark for shoot-from-the-hipsters like Sens. John McCain and Ted Cruz who capitalize on the impatience of tea party conservatives toward Mr. Obama's insistence on a multilateral response to the Middle East quagmire.

At the same time, critical voices in his own party on foreign policy, from Leon Panetta to Hillary Clinton, further complicate his efforts to rally his political troops on the ground in critical states and congressional districts to produce large Democratic turnouts, not historically achieved in midterm elections.

In 2012, Mr. Obama was able to provide enough of the old spark of the 2008 campaign to give him four more years in office, aided in part by the mistakes and vulnerabilities of his opponent, Mitt Romney. This time around, the Republicans have managed to make Mr. Obama himself the issue. Although, as he notes, he is not on the ballot, the ineffectiveness of the old Obama magic could in the end cost him control of the Senate and bring him two final frustrating years in the presidency.

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