With Leadership Questioned, Obama Gets In The Fray

Sep 20, 2011

There's been a sea change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It's almost as if the cerebral, detached president went into a phone booth and came out a fighting Democrat.

In the Rose Garden on Monday, as President Obama laid out his vision for how the congressional supercommittee could find trillions in savings, he was no longer above the fray. He was right in the fray. And he made it clear he has given up on his so far fruitless search for common ground with the Republicans.

He did something he's never done before when sending a proposal to Congress: He made a veto threat upfront.

"I will not support any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans," he said. "And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share."

The president planted a flag with a quid pro quo: no structural changes in Medicare unless Republicans agree to additional revenues.

But House Speaker John Boehner also planted a flag — with no quid pro quo. Boehner ruled out any increase in tax revenues. So that leaves the chances for a grand bargain from the deficit supercommittee around zilch.

But, says Democratic strategist Geoff Garin, cutting the deficit was only one of the president's goals.

"The presidency is a leadership position. People want the president to lead at the end of the day. It is fine to be a conciliator, and it is important not to be mindlessly partisan ... but at the end of the day, the threshold quality that people associate with president is leader," Garin says. "And that's what Barack Obama, I think, is in the process of re-establishing for people."

Questions About Leadership

"Re-establishing," Garin says, because it is a threshold attribute that independent voters — and even Democrats — had begun to doubt.

"What the American people had started to question is whether Barack Obama had the strong leadership and the courage of conviction to lay out a course and stick with it," he says.

Garin says the president's recent combative speeches have helped.

Jim Kessler of the centrist think tank Third Way points to something else: When he polled swing voters, Kessler found what White House aides will often point out — that the president is still personally popular.

"What we found in our poll was ... they're open to this guy. They still like him and they mostly want him to succeed," Kessler says. "There's still a fondness for him."

That may be true, but Republicans have been quick to turn this bright spot for Obama into a backhanded compliment that underscores their main argument.

"This president is a nice guy," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said in a GOP debate earlier this month. "He doesn't have a clue how to get this country working again."

Changing The Discussion

A book released Tuesday about the Obama White House, Confidence Men, by journalist Ron Suskind, underscores that "in over his head" narrative.

In Kessler's polling, one of the words most often volunteered by swing voters to describe the president was "ineffective." And that raises the question — with no ability to get a divided Congress to pass his agenda, how can the president convince voters he is an effective leader?

"Of course you want to see the economy improve and you'd like to see a deficit package come through," Kessler says, "but they have to come up with a formulation that says: 'Well, if the economy is still sputtering along and Congress isn't able to pass anything, let us at least show strength.' "

According to most forecasters, the economy probably will still be sputtering along next year. Political analyst Stu Rothenberg says Obama is running for a second term in one of the worst environments for an incumbent.

"He cannot allow the 2012 election to be a referendum on the state of the country, the state of the economy," Rothenberg says. "He's got to make it a choice between his vision — what he hopes to accomplish, what he thinks he's started to accomplish — and where the Republicans want to take the country. That is the only way he can be re-elected."

Obama made history once. To get a second term, he'll have to make it again. Not only does he have 9 percent unemployment to contend with — no president since Franklin Roosevelt has ever run for re-election with the jobless rate that high — but consumer confidence about the future is at its lowest level since 1980 and 1992.

And those were both years when incumbent presidents were defeated.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.