Obama's re-engagement

WASHINGTON — After a year of playing nice with the Republicans in Congress and deferring to his own party's leadership on health care reform, President Obama has embarked on a new offensive posture for his second year.

Returning to campaign mode by taking his argument out to the country in Ohio, New Hampshire and elsewhere, the president has climbed into the bully pulpit with a vengeance, pledging job creation while not abandoning last year's top priority issue.

He has intensified use of his most potent political weapon — his personal rhetorical and persuasive powers — not only to assuage public frustrations at Washington but also to challenge the opposition in Congress to get off its obstructionist strategy.

His decision to speak to the House Republican caucus and entertain questions was in an obvious sense an effort to advance his bid for bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. The move was a clear public-relations coup for him and even drew praise from what the Democrats revel in calling the Party of No.

In so doing, Obama deftly employed the Q-and-A with a few GOP congressmen to remind them, and the country, that the economic collapse that held him hostage through his first White House year was largely inherited from the previous Republican administration.

When a Republican from Texas posed a long question on the federal budget obviously crafted as a partisan argument, Obama interrupted him, charging that "the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign." No progress was going to be made, he said, if the other party is characterized "as being irresponsible, the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens, that the other party is doing X, Y, Z."

But in this nationally televised encounter and in his subsequent Q-and-A session the Senate Democrats, Obama himself reiterated that it was Republican fiscal irresponsibility in waging two unpaid-for wars and tax cuts to the wealthy that got the country into its deep hole in the first place.

Obama and his strategists have concluded that for all his travels and public engagements in his first year, he was under-utilized in terms of maximizing the new administration's best resource and must now re-engage.

In retrospect, the one arena in which Obama was most conspicuously absent in the first year was in shaping and giving specific direction to the health-care insurance reform that was his top priority. His decision to have the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate craft and hammer out the reform package first, and then only weigh in himself on the result, invited much internal squabbling and delay.

Months and months were lost in futile efforts to coax a small handful of Republican senators to support one or another of the congressional Democratic proposals, and then in effect to bribe a recalcitrant Senate Democrat or two.

Those attempts were scuttled by the election in Massachusetts of a 41st GOP senator, depriving Obama of a filibuster-proof chamber. As a result, the president's intensified re-engagement faces a greater legislative hurdle than he encountered in his first year.

He observed in his meetings with the House Republicans and with the Senate Democrats that he will be open in his second year to Republican ideas that could break the impasse on health care reform. At the same time, however, Obama's press spokesman Bill Burton seemed to signal continued presidential distance from specific negotiations. "He's not going to get into the nitty-gritty of what the best way forward is at this point," Burton said.

Many congressional Democrats disagree. They yearn for a president of their party who, like the late Lyndon B. Johnson, engaged up to his eyeballs in negotiating legislative details, in prodding and threatening lawmakers of both parties to do his bidding.

Johnson came to the presidency after a record as one of the Senate's most effective leaders, and he never hesitated in the Oval Office to browbeat as necessary. Obama by contrast has deferred to his party leaders in Congress as a lower-key persuader in his first year. As he re-engages now, a bit of the old LBJ branding iron wouldn't hurt.

You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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