Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief in Washington

Obama: paying the price of his go-it-alone presidency

There are long-held beliefs within the party that Mr Obama is not a team player and his well-oiled political machinery serves a single person. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
There are long-held beliefs within the party that Mr Obama is not a team player and his well-oiled political machinery serves a single person. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Hardly any president in his sixth year has had a good night at the polls. In 11 such elections since 1900, control of congress has shifted away from whoever was in the White House nine times.

Indeed, mid-term elections tend to see only 40 per cent of voters turn up - and those who are unhappy are more likely to take the trouble.

"Americans tend to vote as a kind of a referendum," said Dr Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That is, Americans - voters who aren't already committed simply on the basis of party, but the wiggle room, the small number who shift, do so on a referendum basis, and they usually have more to complain about than to applaud."

But none of that explains the reaction of Democratic Party leaders after the defeat. Rather than close ranks around the embattled president, the leadership seemed to turn on him.

Mr David Krone, the chief of staff of the outgoing Senate majority leader Harry Reid complained that it was difficult working with The White House.

"I don't think that the political team at the White House truly was up to speed and up to par doing what needed to get done," Mr Krone told The Washington Post, saying that the president refused requests for help with fundraising.

The rare attack from a senior Democrat reaffirmed long-held beliefs within the party that Mr Obama is not a team player and his well-oiled political machinery serves a single person.

Mr Obama entered the White House with few close relationships in Congress, having served just three years as a Senator. He portrayed himself as a Washington outsider above playing politics and often assumed his unmatched oratorical skills and pure logic would carry the day.

When that failed, he turned further inward. Analysts say his announced "pen and phone" policy designed to circumvent a dysfunctional Congress irked many lawmakers from both sides.

Many said he secretly believed his most ardent opponents were either stupid or political extremists with no place in the mainstream.

Mr David King, senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School put it this way : "He did not seem to like the US Congress even when he was a member of it, and he has kept his party leadership at arm's length for six years. That is unlikely to change."

His style never seemed to engender any loyalty, even among those who counted as his allies. Two separate Defence Secretaries that served in his administration - Leon Panetta and Robert Gates - thought nothing of releasing memoirs criticising the president this year. Even worse, his appointed ambassador to China, Mr Jon Huntsman Jr., decided to run against his former boss in the 2012 presidential election.

And while that tension can be ignored when things are going well, it makes things worse when things are not.

For the White House, things have certainly not been going well.

Perhaps the biggest let down has been the botched roll-out of Mr Obama's signature healthcare legislation. When the online exchanges first opened to allow people to sign up for the programme last year, the websites were bug-ridden and slow.

It would take several months for the websites to get up to speed and by then, severe damage had been done to the president, the Democratic party and the image of a legislation that Mr Obama had spent every last bit of his initial political capital on.

From there, the crises continued to snowball, reinforcing a narrative that all was not right within the White House.

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden hogged the headlines for months and ruined relationships between Mr Obama and numerous allies abroad. There were scandals within the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Veteran Affairs and a immigration crisis on the southern US border.

In each case, Congress was never included as part of the solution to the problem, only as a seeming irritant trying to capitalise on it for partisan political gains. While this was true to an extent, the president and his team never seemed to be able to get on top of any of them.

In some instances, as with Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki, public pressure would ultimately lead to resignations. In others, as in the immigration crisis, there would be curious political bungles. In July, as the crisis was raging in Texas, Mr Obama attended a series of fundraisers in the state while refusing to go to the border to see the problem first hand.

Problems at home were compounded by challenges abroad where the president responses again seemed inadequate.

Things began to go south in 2013 when Mr Obama drew a red line for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's on chemical weapons, and then did nothing when the line was crossed. Since then, nearly everything else has led to similar criticism.

The US reaction to Russia's incursion and subsequent annexing of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, China's provocations in the South China Sea and the growing threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria all received the same critique - the US misread the problem early on and then stumbled forward with either wrong or inadequate solutions.

Perhaps another aspect working against Mr Obama has been that he had set himself too high a standard and came into office with expectations no one could be expected to fulfill.

When the president first came into office, there were soaring visions of recasting America's place in the world. He would solve partisanship in Washington, improve the US image in the Muslim world, take the country off a war footing, reset relations with Russia and make China into a partner on global issues. A measure of the optimism that greeted his election was the Nobel Peace Prize he won just one year into his tenure - a prize that msut now seem premature given his expansion of the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

With minimal achievement on that formidable list, he now runs the risk of becoming the president who gave great speeches that never amounted anything.

While there is time to turn it around, he faces more challenging circumstances now than at any point during his tenure. Obstructionist Republicans in Congress will scupper his domestic agenda and strong leaders like China's Xi Jinping or Russia's Vladimir Putin will make his foreign policy equally hard.

He can turn around his presidency and his image, but he may have to confront the reality that this is something he cannot do alone.