The familiar pattern emerges: Aides spin a preview, he delivers an admirable speech, nothing changes.
How did Barack Obama morph from an inspiring orator to a professorial President without the power to lead? Yes, yes: a crashing economy, wall-to-wall GOP resistance, Tea Party insanity... Granted, but there must be more.
"I'd rather be a really good one-term president," he said a year ago, "than a mediocre two-term president." As of now, there is doubt that he will be either.
Wednesday's speech on deficits offers another chance to lead, but a sinking suspicion suggests more of the same.
"Despite the ferocious opposition he has faced since the day he took office," Paul Krugman writes, "Mr. Obama is clearly still clinging to his vision of himself as a figure who can transcend America’s partisan differences. And...win re-election by positioning himself as being conciliatory and reasonable, by always being willing to compromise.
"But...the nation wants--and more important, the nation needs--a president who believes in something, and is willing to take a stand."
It's more complicated than that, of course, but these past two years underscore the classic dilemma about oratory: differing public responses to Cicero ("How well he speaks") and Demosthanes ("Let us march!").
If the President wants to mobilize Americans to back him against the Republican blueprint to tear down their government, more than Ciceronian eloquence is needed.
He will have to abandon illusions he can persuade Boehner, McConnell, Paul Ryan and the GOP 2012 pygmy aspirants to reason with him and risk engaging now in the confrontation that is coming next year in any case.
Barack Obama is no Truman, in temperament or intellect, but now would be the time to study the 1948 campaign in which "Give 'em Hell Harry" tore into a "do-nothing, good-for-nothing Congress"--and won reelection.
A "really good one-term president" would be mobilizing Americans against Tea Party madness now, remembering Truman's insistence that "The buck stops here." If he takes that advice, Obama may find controlling the debate about bucks can determine what happens at the ballot box.