WASHINGTON — So much about Washington seems unchanging from decade to decade, from generation to generation: The Capitol dome, shimmering in the blue-black sky of evening. The monuments, bleached white and inspiring reflection (Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson) and remembrance (World War II, Korea, Vietnam). The White House, majestic in its simple elegance. The tourists, clutching cameras and high hopes for the American experiment, even with more than a dozen dead of gun wounds a few blocks away.
And yet in a political system designed to be forever new — the regular rotation of House members in biennial elections, the immutable four-year rhythms of a presidential term — there is something new but deeply unsettling about the capital as summer melts into autumn this month. It is as if the center of gravity of the political system has shifted, or as if a system of exquisite balance has been disrupted.
It isn’t any one thing but an accumulation of factors that have contributed to the word that dare not speak its name — the word (malaise) that Jimmy Carter never actually uttered in a 1979 speech remembered in presidential infamy.
In its modern incarnation it has robbed Barack Obama’s second term of its new-car smell, added a dreary sense of deja vu to the looming budget showdown, stolen away in the night with America’s reputation as the indispensable nation and transformed the last remaining shreds of contemplation into mere contention. Here are some of the symptoms:
The president has lost his gyroscope.
Even in the most discouraging moments of his first term, President Obama knew where he was going and had a sure notion of how to get there. No more, and the Syria episode, now being celebrated by some as an example of the president’s shrewdness (the end of Syrian chemical weapons without the start of American bombing!), is the principal example. The president’s moral outrage was appropriate after last month’s gas attacks, and the nation shared his sense of shock even as Americans were not in awe of his response, which was changeable if not inscrutable.