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Obama chafes at checks on his power

US President Barack Obama speaks on the need for a '21st Century Transportation Infrastructure' in Tarrytown, New York, on May 14, 2014
US President Barack Obama speaks on the need for a "21st Century Transportation Infrastructure" in Tarrytown, New York, on May 14, 2014

The most powerful man in the world is getting frustrated he can't get big things done.

President Barack Obama is speaking with introspection about constraints on his power at home and abroad, as mid-term election inertia stifles Washington and his hopes of major legislative wins this year.

Early skirmishes of the 2016 presidential campaign –- and the unquenchable media obsession with all things Clinton -- are already forcing Obama to share the political stage.

When power ebbs at home, second term presidents often flex muscle abroad.

But no overseas playground awaits Obama: in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, US dominance is under siege, fueling a Republican narrative that the president fires blanks and lacks a coherent foreign policy doctrine.

In friendly company, Obama's frustration is beginning to show.

"I've got a drawer full of things that we know would create jobs, help our middle class, boost incomes, make us more competitive," Obama told wealthy New York Democrats.

"But we have a party on the other side that has been captured by an ideology that says no to anything."

- What a year -

US President Barack Obama listens to Vice President Joe Biden as they lunch with workers from a neighborhood development project at a restaurant in Washington on May 16, 2014 to highlight his plan to increase investment in infrastructure
US President Barack Obama listens to Vice President Joe Biden as they lunch with workers from a neighborhood development project at a restaurant in Washington on May 16, 2014 to highlight his plan to increase investment in infrastructure

The president's gloom is partly self-inflicted.

Obama botched the rollout of his health care law and saw his approval ratings -- and consequent power to persuade in mid-term polls eroded.

His administration is now struggling to contain a scandal after 40 military veterans died while waiting for treatment at a Phoenix medical facility.

The White House meanwhile blasts endless Republican probes into the death of four Americans in the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 as blatant partisan hackery.

"What a year, huh?" Obama quipped at the White House Correspondent's gala this month, in a speech packed with the usual zingers but delivered in an unmistakably joyless tone.

Top Obama aides say the president should not be judged on what he gets through a hostile Congress. That's just as well because he has so far no major legacy-enhancing legislation in his second term.

With two and a half years to go, the president's sense of his ebbing term is acute.

He warned this week that only a two- or three-month window remained to pass comprehensive immigration reform before November's congressional polls. Given Capitol Hill's record of achievement, that timetable seemed wildly optimistic.

US President Barack Obama greets Girl Scouts from Accokeek Academy after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base May 9, 2014 in Maryland
US President Barack Obama greets Girl Scouts from Accokeek Academy after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base May 9, 2014 in Maryland

Dreading lame duck status, Obama declared 2014 a "year of action" and is using executive power to fight climate change, boost the middle class and repair US infrastructure.

While presidential orders can be effective, they pale in comparison to what a like-minded Congress could do.

With Republicans tipped to add Senate control to their grip on the House of Representatives though, Obama is unlikely to ever again find compliance on Capitol Hill.

But hope still lingers for a bipartisan transportation bill and for legislation reframing National Security Agency surveillance in the post-Edward Snowden era this year.

A Republican Congress could also prove amenable to endorsing the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal that is the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy pivot to Asia.

And if latest data showing nearly 300,000 jobs were created in April is a harbinger, Obama's administration could yet enjoy an economic Indian summer.

- Trouble abroad -

Obama also has it tough overseas.

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk from Marine One after arriving on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, May 15, 2014
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk from Marine One after arriving on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, May 15, 2014

Often, his efforts to cool national security crises have revealed limits of his influence rather than his power to shape events.

Warnings to President Bashar al-Assad went unheard across Syria's killing grounds and Secretary of State John Kerry's personal Middle East peace push foundered.

And Obama's rallying call to Europe to isolate Moscow over its annexation of Crimea is at best a work in progress, while prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran -- a potential big win -- remain deeply uncertain.

Still, Obama's chief foreign policy legacy may rest in fulfilling a mandate voters gave him in 2008 -- getting American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

And he still has time to cement the rebalance to Asia, following a successful regional tour in April.

Increasingly, Obama seems to see the contradiction of his position.

"I have this remarkable title right now -- president of the United States -- and yet every day when I wake up and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria... there are times I want to reach out and save those kids," he said recently in California.

"I think 'drop by drop' that we can erode and wear down those forces that are so destructive."

That may be a doctrine of US power forged by frustrating experience.

But it's minimalist compared to Obama's 2008 vision as an untested candidate in Berlin that "improbable hope" could "remake the world once again."

The narrowed sights have not gone unnoticed.

"Instead of shaping world events, he has often simply reacted to them," said Republican Senator Marco Rubio -- a possible 2016 candidate.

But Obama now sells incrementalism abroad -- defined by avoiding military quagmires -- as a virtue.

"That may not always be sexy. but it avoids errors," he said in Manila last month, using the "disastrous" war in Iraq as a case study.

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