WASHINGTON -- Americans believe in the power of the presidency. The job contains no magical powers, but we like to think it does. It's fatal for a president to seem overwhelmed by events, unable to exert his will in the world (or Washington or Wall Street).
But powerlessness is the theme that the WikiLeaks cables -- carefully culled and leaked -- create.
And they come at a bad time for President Obama: as he tries to deal with Republicans who think recalcitrance is a philosophy, and with corporations and banks who were rescued by bailouts and cheap money but who now hoard cash and pay CEOs grotesque bonuses.
Will President Obama be able counter Bush-era tax policy and raise marginal rates on the richest Americans in the name of cutting the deficit? Probably not. Will he be able to convince the Senate to ratify the New START treaty with Russians? Perhaps not. Will he be able to cajole Congress into adding more unemployment benefits for wounded warriors of the Great Recession? Not clear.
On the economic front, he has been reduced to operating in one of the few domains in which he still has clout: freezing the pay of federal workers.
And now the global humiliation of the cables.
The Bush administration -- eager to drop daisy cutters and launch wars -- made a diplomatic hash of the world in the aftermath of 9/11. The resulting mess was, in part, what got Barack Obama elected.
But now the world seems more divided and unstable than ever -- and the mess that got him elected could be his undoing.
The cables depict us in this world not just a wounded giant, but not a giant at all: begging countries to house our prisoners of war; busying ourselves with trivial tasks (collecting frequent flier numbers) while North Korea ships missiles to Iran; being lied to by Syrians; relying on the good will of Saudis even as they fund Sunni terrorists and demand that we destroy Iran's nuclear capability; fretting about Pakistan's loosely-guarded enriched uranium while remaining unable to influence what they do; elevating leaders in Afghanistan we know to be corrupt or insane or both.
The dominant impression is of an Obama administration full of good intentions and shrewd people, but dealing with raging, contradictory forces it cannot control or even fully understand.
It was ever thus in diplomacy, of course, but the difference now is the existence of rogue states and thugs determined to acquire nuclear weapons. That gives it all a desperate existential urgency.
And it is not clear what Obama can do about it.
If you are a president, you don't want to bring an aura of confusion and ineffectiveness with you to a meeting of your political enemies.
But that is exactly what is going to happen tomorrow, when Obama meets with Republican congressional leaders at the White House.
Republicans are decrying WikiLeaks, but they will have all read the cables by the time the president walks into the meeting.