Catalogue of woes puts Washington in doldrums

WASHINGTON – Baseball lore recalls that legendary manager Casey Stengel, when running the hapless 1962 New York Mets, forlornly asked his charges: “Can’t anybody here play this game?” It’s an appropriate question right now in the nation’s capital concerning not only baseball but also football and politics.

On Tuesday night at their home ballpark, the Washington Nationals, the National League’s winningest team of 2014 and seemingly headed for the World Series, lost their third game out of four to the San Francisco Giants and were blown out of contention. The demise came the day after the Washington Redskins, the NFL team under increasing pressure to change its name, had lost the fourth of their first five games under yet another new coach.

Worst of all, the nation’s head coach and chief resident, Barack Obama, had to endure the indignity of being criticized for his policy against the emerging Islamic State by Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter, who was thrown out of office 34 years earlier on grounds, among others, of incompetence. You might call that the pot calling the kettle black.

Carter, in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said “we waited too long” in letting “the Islamic State build up its money, capability and strength and weapons while it was still in Syria.” He added that when the terrorist group “moved into Iraq, the Sunni Muslims didn’t object to their being there and about a third of the territory in Iraq was abandoned” to it.

Carter, whose post-presidency has redeemed much of his good name after his much-maligned one term in the Oval Office, thus joined the chorus of second-guessing on Obama’s tarrying over the mess in Syria. Former Obama Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Obama Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates in recent weeks all have pitched in with the same gripe.

Their outspoken views that Obama missed the boat in not coming to the aid of Syrian rebels against dictator Bashar al-Assad, creating a vacuum into which the Islamic State rushed to fill, have added to a general public assault on the American president’s own competence after six years in office.

Talk of a White House staff shakeup is in the air, with particular emphasis on Middle East strategy. Obama has finally launched air strikes at the newest terrorist threat and has begun to build a long-term alliance of the willing against it.

Complicating his dilemma politically is the sea of foreign troubles that has come as his Democratic Party struggles against a Republican assault to take control of the Senate in next month’s midterm congressional elections. On this front too, the beleaguered man in the White House has been conspicuously AWOL.

Obama’s forays onto the campaign trail this fall have been essentially limited to safe political territory, such as his blue home state of Illinois, and to fund-raising affairs elsewhere.

Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates have pulled in the usual welcome mat, fearful that the once golden boy has become toxic to much of the electorate.

When Obama recently and injudiciously told an audience that while his own name was not on the ballot in November, the issues dear to and his own and Democratic hearts were at stake, he was rebuked by one of his own. His old Chicago and White House political adviser, David Axelrod, labeled the comment “a mistake,” apparently because it provided an injudicious linkage to the fall elections.

The one pre-election issue that was expected to dominate those elections to Obama’s detriment, his health-care insurance act widely denigrated as “Obamacare,” seems to have faded as its implementation has improved. But other administration scandals of incompetence involving the VA, the IRS, and now the Secret Service have all resurrected the incompetence rap.

Even before all these erosive developments, Obama’s personal style, criticized as aloof and detached toward Congress, were reminiscent of judgments about Jimmy Carter in his presidency of the 1970s.

They proved politically fatal then, and could have a reprise now, hampering Obama’s ability to function effectively in his remaining two years in office.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is, “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at