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Who's afraid of Barack Obama?
The new president spent his first months in office coasting on love and popularity. In his health care speech to Congress Wednesday, he rallied after a rough summer with a new round of tough talk.
But with the moment of truth fast approaching on Capitol Hill for the signature item on his domestic policy, Obama seems to lack one item that most presidents find helpful to have in their White House tool box: Fear.
On the left and on the right, interest groups and members of Congress have been eagerly enjoying the rewards—publicity, negotiating leverage—of challenging the president or dissenting from his policies.
That’s usually a practice presidents try to discourage—especially among members of their own party—by making it clear that the long-term penalty will be greater than any short-term gains.
But the practice has been encouraged by this president’s own intellectual and political style—a preference for negotiation, combined with a disinclination toward drawing bright lines about his own bottom line.
In the speech this week, Obama rallied Democrats by saying he would not tolerate GOP distortions of his health care ideas, but also signaled unmistakably that liberals in the end will probably need to join him in caving over their hopes for a “public option” health insurance plan. Even the legendary Rahm cast early on as the White House enforcer, has taken a slightly more statesmanlike portfolio, with no obvious deputy hit man to step in.
It’s got some people in both parties wondering whether there really is a steel fist inside Obama’s velvet glove.
Democrats in Congress told POLITICO they've been surprised that there seem to be no obvious consequences for sharp criticism of the White House. Cheerleaders on the left are beginning to urge him, in the words of Maureen Dowd, to be "more Rocky, less Spocky."
"One of the few areas of agreement on the right and left is that both sides want to see more strength of leadership from him," notes Dan Gerstein, a Democratic political consultant. "There has to be respect - and fear."
"His problem has been almost from the beginning that while Democrats on the Hill appreciate him, they're occasionally inspired by him, they're not all that impressed with him," said Bush political advisor Karl Rove. "They appreciate his diffident attitude, but I'm not sure it's one that inspires either fear or respect."
Democrats, on Capitol Hill or the White House, aren’t likely to be swayed by taunting from the likes of Rove.
But it is true that as the health care debate reaches its denouement, Obama is almost certainly going to be pressuring liberals in his own party to accept less than they once expected, and conservative Democrats to spend more than they want.
When this moment comes, Obama will likely need find the power of reason is more effective when backed by a demonstrated willingness to crack heads.
"One of the things you lose the ability to do when you step back from the legislative process is to jump in there and be beefy when things don't go the way you want," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who has criticized the White House's plans from the left at no apparent political cost.
The decision to let Congress lead the way to health care reform was a strategic one, driven by the failures of the Clinton Administration. Come the fall, if Obama eventually signs major legislation, it may look like a brilliant one.
But the diffidence is also of a piece with Obama's personality and his governing style: In private debates, advisors say, he likes to hear and restate arguments; he more rarely shows his own cards.
And he has yet to take a tough stand, or pick a difficult fight, on many of the major policy issues of the day. He continues to search for a Goldilocks solution in Afghanistan - not too hot, not too cold, and projected nothing more than caution when Iranians took to the streets. He has allowed disfavored proposals from allies - like the Employee Free Choice Act - to die of their own accord, professing support all the while.
The question is where this personal and strategic blurriness turns into a more dangerous political sense of weakness, a dangerous perception for American presidents George H.W. Bush learned when Newsweek labeled him a "wimp" on its front page. His son labored to avoid that mistake, his obsessions about projecting strength sometimes coming off as swagger.
When Congressmen Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) was reduced to abject, groveling apologies for bellowing "You lie!" at Obama during his address to a joint session of Congress, it wasn't just an opportunity for Democrats to cast Republicans as less than constructive; it was also a reminder of presidential stature and power.
But Wilson, within 24 hours, had come back around to his own defense, and he's a rare Republican to have paid any price for attacking the president. After early internal debates over whether accommodation would be more effective than confrontation, congressional Republicans have clearly decided that they have little to lose from a fight.
One Republican consultant, Nelson Warfield, traced that realization to the passage of energy legislation through the House over near-unified Republican opposition.
"After the uniform stand against cap and tax [as Republicans deride the bill], there was no price to be paid," he said.
"There hasn't been any cost for opposing him - in fact there's been a premium ," he added.
"He's not meeting the basic standard of manhood," taunted Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant whose clients include the National Republican Trust, which ran some of the earliest, most scathing anti-Obama ads.
Partisan jibes are, of course, nothing new. But Obama's capacity to inspire fear on his own side of the aisle also remains in doubt. The House Progressive Caucus and members of its Blue Dog minority have taken steady shots at his health care views and his management of the issue without any obvious bruises to show for it, and many take his hands-off stance as a kind of license.
Obama has been accused of weakness before. In the summer and fall of 2007, he found himself reassuring even his own backers that he could face Hillary Clinton. In the summer and fall of 2008, he beat back Senator John McCain's attempt to cast him as effete.
The Democratic consultant Paul Begala, who is close to the White House, noted that the President gives two kinds of speeches: "Olympian and even-handed ones" like talks on race and on Islam and the West; and tougher stemwinders, like his direct assault on Hillary Clinton at Iowa's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in 2007 and his speech at last year's Democratic National Convention.
“Given how screwed up Washington is and how deep the partisan poison runs, it's for the most part a good thing that he's coolly analytical and a consensus builder," said Gerstein, the Democratic consultant. "But what we've seen in his first nine months in office is that there are times when that is not just the wrong approach - it's counterproductive, because it allows people to get off the hook, or take advantage of you - as opposed to a more LBJ-style kick ass, take names way of wielding power.”