Pity poor Barack Obama. There he was in the Oval Office on Thursday morning, the most powerful person in the world, waiting to learn whether the Supreme Court would cast into the dustbin the healthcare reform to which he had devoted the first two years of his presidency.
Like the rest of us, he had to watch television to find out. The court is the one institution in Washington that does not leak. Even though the nine justices had taken the basic vote almost immediately after hearing oral arguments on the case in late March, and dozens of people, from court clerks to printers, must have been in the know, not a word filtered out. Not even the occupant of the White House, the most directly interested party, was accorded the courtesy of advance notice (the White House, after all, most certainly does leak).
And to compound Obama's agony, the main cable news channels got it wrong. Both CNN and Fox initially reported that the individual mandate, the centrepiece of the measure requiring individual Americans to purchase insurance coverage, had indeed been thrown out as unconstitutional. Initially, thePresident thought he had lost, and only discovered otherwise when the White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler came in a few minutes later to clear matters up. Obama, according to officials quoted by The Washington Post, hugged her in relief.
For CNN, however, the error may cause more lasting damage. The pioneer cable news network's ratings have been declining for years now, but until Thursday it could at least still claim superiority as an impartial and accurate source of news, in contrast to Fox, which often acts like the television division of the Republican Party.
Now that reputation has taken a hit as well. Like CNN, Fox also blundered by rushing on to the air without having read the ruling in its entirety. Unlike its rival, however, the "fair and balanced" network was unrepentant. "As we were reading it, we let our viewers know about it," a spokesman said, before adding with the truculence that makes Fox so endearing: "You don't have to wait until the end of the Yankees game to give the score."
But I digress. My point is the powerlessness of power. After expending vast amounts of political capital and popularity in driving through Congress his one legacy achievement thus far, Obama found himself at the mercy of nine unsackable justices, seven of them appointed by his predecessors, concerned only with the constitutionality of the measure, and whom no rousing speech could sway.
That particular reef has now been navigated. But the game is far from over. A majority of Americans still say they oppose "Obamacare" and the Republicans vow to get rid of it. If Mitt Romney wins, and his party gains control of the Senate in November, they will.
First and foremost, though, the election will be decided by the economy, and here too the President is a hostage to events. If the recovery continues, Obama will probably win a second term. But if growth peters out, and the next three or four months produce more dismal unemployment figures, then all bets are off.
And the fate of the US economy depends in good part on what happens in Europe. The President and his Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, can issue exhortations to eurozone policy-makers until the cows come home. But exhort is all they can do. Like the rest of us, Obama must wait, and hope that Friday's bank rescue deal at the Brussels summit does the trick.
Ah, you may say, but what about foreign policy? At home, an American president's powers are indeed limited by the checks and balances built into the system, and by the constitution's deliberate separation of powers. Abroad, on the other hand, can he not dispose much as he pleases? Here again, however, the answer increasingly is no.
Of late, there's been a cavalcade of summitry on this side of the Atlantic too. In May, Obama hosted a G8 meeting at Camp David to much fanfare, immediately followed by a Nato summit in Chicago. A prize for anyone who can remember what happened at either. A fortnight ago, the G20 leaders met in Mexico. The one abiding image of that occasion is of Obama looking miserable at his joint press conference with Vladimir Putin, having plainly failed to change the Russian President's mind about anything.
America, the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright liked to say, was the "indispensable nation". And up to a point, that remains the case. In every major crisis, eyes turn automatically to Washington. But consider the case of Hillary Clinton, who holds Albright's old post now.
Last week she became the most widely travelled Secretary of State ever. When her US Air Force jet touched down in Riga, Latvia, she was visiting her 100th country, eclipsing the previous record of Albright, who managed a mere 96. Since taking office in January 2009, the State Department said, Clinton had spent 337 days – more than a quarter of that period – abroad, and no fewer than 73 of them in the air.
But what precisely has this globe-trotting by the most famous and well-liked Secretary of State of modern times, the top diplomat of the world's most powerful country, actually achieved? The Middle East is in turmoil, peace between Israel and Palestine is as remote as ever, Syria is ablaze, sectarian strife continues in Iraq, while US relations with Pakistan are at an all-time low. The vaunted "re-set" with Russia has not materialised, and the US has failed to impose its will on Iran. Then there are those infuriating Europeans.
The list could go on. No one doubts Clinton's competence. Her ability – and that of her boss – to actually change events is, however, another matter. Still, there are consolations. On balance, being swept around the world in a custom-fitted Boeing 757 is probably preferable to pacing the Oval Office, wondering whether a bunch of judges are going to strike down your most far-reaching accomplishment. Oh yes, and with the TV networks messing up as well.