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WASHINGTON It's never a good sign for a president when he feels compelled to assure the public he still has a pulse.
This is the unenviable position President Obama was in Tuesday morning when he held a news conference in the White House briefing room and faced a profusion of questions about the stalled pieces of his legislative program. Asked by ABC News' Jonathan Karl whether he still had "the juice to get the rest of your agenda through," Obama paraphrased Mark Twain's response to a newspaper's report that he was near death.
"You know, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated," Obama said.
Back in 1995, Bill Clinton assured Americans that he was still relevant; this may be the first time a president asserted that he was still alive.
One hundred days into his second term, Obama has already lost control of the agenda, if he ever had control in the first place. He ricocheted through his news conference, as he has through his presidency recently, between issues and crises not of his choice.
He was asked about unrest in Syria, the September attack on American officials in Libya, the bombing in Boston, troubles implementing his health care law and difficulty closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Karl pointed out that Obama's gun-control legislation collapsed, that his attempts to undo the "sequester" cuts have been ignored and that 92 House Democrats defied his veto threat on a cybersecurity bill.
"Well, if you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should just pack up and go home," Obama replied. "Golly."
The president was out of sorts from the start of the news conference, scheduled for 10:15 a.m. and postponed to 10:30. Obama finally came out at 10:46. "Good afternoon," he said. "Or good morning."
He didn't attempt to set the tone for the event, skipping an opening statement. And he often found himself remarking on the difficulty of his job: intelligence sharing ("this is hard stuff"), closing Gitmo ("it's a hard case to make"), Republican governors blocking his health care law's implementation ("that makes it harder") and responding in Syria ("it is a difficult problem").
If there was a common theme to the president's many troubles, it was an uncooperative Congress. "Right now things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill," he observed. As an example, he mentioned the legislation which he signed into law to end flight delays caused by the sequester's furloughs of air-traffic controllers by shifting money from airport repairs and improvements. "In order to avoid delays this summer, we're going to ensure delays for the next two or three decades," he said.
"Why'd you go along with it?" Karl asked.
Some in the room chuckled. Obama didn't. "You seem to suggest that somehow these folks over there have no responsibilities, and that my job is to somehow get them to behave," he said. "That's their job. ... I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions."
Obama is correct about the dysfunction, and the difficulty of passing even uncontroversial bills. But his stance was frustratingly passive, as if what happens in Congress is out of his hands. It's the president's job to lead, and to bang heads if necessary. Obama seemed oddly like a spectator, as if he had resigned himself to a reactive presidency.
In response to questions from Fox News' Ed Henry, Obama offered some noncommittal thoughts on how he would respond to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons (he would "rethink the range of options").
Obama later told CBS' Bill Plante that he had to keep the Guantanamo prison open because "Congress determined that they would not let us close it." And, in response to a question from NBC's Chuck Todd, the president found himself dismissing lawmakers such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus as "nervous and anxious" doubters because Baucus warned that implementation of Obamacare could be a "huge train wreck."
After fielding questions from the five TV networks, Obama gave the last question to a Chilean journalist, Antonieta Cadiz, perhaps hoping that she would ask about immigration. She did but, even then, Obama answered as if he were a bystander.
"I've been impressed by the work that was done by the Gang of Eight in the Senate," he said, also vowing to be "open-minded in seeing what they come up with" in the House.
Open-mindedness is nice. But lively leadership is the way to resuscitate a moribund presidency.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.