WASHINGTON — On either end of Lafayette Square on Monday, you could observe the receding power of the Obama presidency.
On the north side, across from the White House, stands St. John's Episcopal Church, "the Church of the Presidents," where every president since James Madison has worshiped. But there was no sanctuary for President Obama at St. John's on Monday; it was hosting a protest against him.
More than 100 Latinos — a constituency that has been a reliable part of Obama's political base — stood on the church steps as speakers denounced Obama's pledge to hasten deportations of children illegally crossing the southern border. Addressing the participants, many of whom held signs saying "President Obama: STOP!!," immigration advocate Gustavo Torres charged that "the president has failed to act with the urgency and competence that is required."
At that very moment on the other side of the square, the White House was acting with urgency on Obama's latest executive action, the "Excellent Educators for All" initiative. Eight-hundred feet from the church protest, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was in the White House briefing room, talking about "differential compensation," "systemic inequities" and the administration's plans to spend $4.2 million on a new "educator equity support network."
Duncan said the administration would prefer to act with Congress rather than use executive authority, "but we just can't continue to wait."
Certainly, the matter of teacher quality for poor kids is important, but Duncan and his administration colleagues are in for a semester at the school of hard knocks if they think a $4.2 million initiative (that's about 0.0001 percent of the federal budget) will get attention when there's a crisis on the border, a crisis in Iraq and Syria, and other fires to be extinguished at home and abroad.
Indeed, the first question for Duncan on Monday wasn't about his new initiative but about the National Education Association's call over the weekend for Duncan's resignation after several policy disagreements. Duncan said he doesn't get involved in "local union politics."
Local? The NEA is the nation's largest teachers union and a key component of Obama's political base — just like the Latino activists protesting across the square.
This is why the oft-leveled accusation that Obama is running an "imperial presidency" is a bit silly. Republicans have never respected Obama's authority. And now, as his popularity slips, he seems to be losing his ability to influence foreign allies, congressional Democrats and some of his previously loyal supporters.
Both the puny executive action and the criticism from erstwhile allies on Monday showed why the Obama presidency these days is falling a good bit short of imperial on the Alexander the Great scale. Education was the White House's message du jour — lunch with teachers on the South Lawn was the only item on Obama's publicly released schedule other than his intelligence briefing — but it didn't have a chance of wresting the national narrative away from less pleasant affairs.
Obama wants Congress to approve additional funds to process child immigrants. But at the same time, he's going on a fundraising trip to Colorado and Texas that, his spokesman confirmed Monday, doesn't include a stop at the border. This could put Obama further on the defensive by inviting the sort of criticism that followed George W. Bush's Hurricane Katrina flyover.
In recent days, Obama has spoken in scattershot fashion about education, jobs, the Highway Trust Fund, immigration legislation and Republicans' threat to sue him for his supposedly monarchical behavior. But his success in shaping the agenda has been negligible. He has been at the mercy of events, reacting to matters not of his choosing and taking executive actions that, for all the criticism, don't have the permanence or reach of legislation.
Following Duncan's visit to the briefing room, new White House press secretary Josh Earnest had the unpleasant task of responding to all the other problems generated by supposed friends.
Ed Henry of Fox News inquired about Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who on Sunday called the administration "one step behind" on the border crisis. The Associated Press' Julie Pace asked about Germany's complaint that one of its intelligence operatives was allegedly a U.S. double agent. And Mark Landler of The New York Times asked why Iraqi leaders seem to be "brushing aside" the administration's pleas to form a new government.
To that last question, Earnest said he had "been pretty candid, I think, over the last couple of weeks, in articulating our disappointment."
Articulating disappointment! Does the arrogance of this imperial presidency know no bounds?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.
(c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group