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Friday, January 18, 2019

WASHINGTON — For President Obama, these are the days of never hearing an encouraging word. Not since his own supporters were losing faith in his presidential campaign in the summer of 2007 has Obama confronted so many bad reviews and such widespread frustration and angry criticism from his own side.

Now, the censure is reinforced by terrible tidings from the outside in the form of wildly swinging stock markets, persistent unemployment and divisions in the nation’s capital so deep that they make the period around President Clinton’s impeachment look like an era of good feelings

For Obama’s lieutenants, his comeback from the ’07 summer doldrums provided an over-learned lesson that encouraged them to ignore external criticism and cruise along with complete confidence in their man’s almost magical powers of restoration.

The president’s loyalists still have faith in him and still love to criticize media narratives they think underestimate him. But this time, both he and they are expressing a level of frustration that may be the healthiest thing happening to Obama in what is an otherwise dismal moment in his presidency. A White House crowd often too sure of itself is fully aware of the ferocious fight Obama faces and the seriousness of the problems he confronts. Their mood and past experience suggests that a new Obama — or, in many ways, the old Obama of 2008 — is about to reappear.

The biggest factor is the end of the default threat. Make no mistake: The administration was petrified that conservatives in Congress really would push the country over the cliff in the debt-ceiling fight. GOP leaders may have realized the dangers involved, but Obama worried that if he miscalculated, House Republicans might not muster a majority to prevent the worst from happening.

Obama’s aides say he understood liberal anger over the Republicans’ irresponsibility in using the default threat to strengthen their own bargaining position. But while progressives wanted the White House to call the right wing’s bluff, Obama insisted that this was not a risk a president could take. He preferred to escape this box with the best flawed deal he could get, provided he could take the lethal debt-ceiling weapon out of Republican hands.

Having done so, the White House now sounds liberated. Even a government shutdown would be a day in springtime compared with the economic Armageddon that default might have let loose. Obama has a margin for maneuver and action he didn’t have before.

Then there is Obama’s own character. He is both conflict-averse and highly competitive. On the one hand, he believes his old speech declaring there is neither a red America nor a blue America, and he trusted his own capacity to bring left and right together — an imprudent presumption, given the nature of the current GOP.

Allowing this side of himself a much longer run than seems reasonable is what unleashed all the recent commentary describing him as weak and indecisive. But no sane human being (and sanity is still an Obama hallmark) can pretend anymore that today’s Republicans remain the party of Bob Dole or Howard Baker. The proof came in last week’s Republican presidential debate when every candidate on stage raised a hand to declare unacceptable even a deficit deal involving 10 times as many spending cuts as revenue increases. This provides a handy new definition of extremism: When 90.9091 percent purity is not good enough.

Obama knows he’s reaching the end of the line on negotiating. Now he has to win. This brings out his competitive side. The rules of an election are similar to those of the sporting contests Obama so enjoys. Candidates are expected to be tough, to go after their opponents, to push and shove and throw them off balance. If you doubt Obama can do this, ask Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

The president’s speech last Thursday in Holland, Mich., was the first sign that the competitive Obama is re-emerging. His target, like Harry Truman’s in 1948, was an obstructionist Republican Congress. He condemned “the refusal of some folks in Congress to put the country ahead of party” and urged that it “start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now.”

With Obama, there is always the danger of a relapse into the passive, we’re-all-reasonable-people style. The fighting Obama has briefly appeared before, only to go back into hibernation. This time, the evidence suggests he’ll stick with it — and, in truth, he has no other choice.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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6 responses to “The New Old Obama Fights Back”

  1. JohnMack says:

    Sure he is. He’s fighting for a right agenda to the left of the far right. Bah! Let’s get a real Democrat for President. Obama is a technocrat tinkering tinkering tinkering, no guiding convictions except compromise defined as giving in right away, but holding back a teensy bit.

  2. ranjackmarlowe says:

    Personally I think that Obama should ‘step aside’ and help Hillary Clinton run for president. Of all the Democrats around only she and her Husband have the Common Sense to bring America back.Randall J. Marlowe, Buenos Aires

  3. Victor Estrada says:

    Obama should have Hillary as is running mate in 2012. She has the spunk to get the base going and confront the “tea-baggers” and by the way conservatives would not have throw tea in the harbor they supported the crown like they do today with the job-creating(ha) wealthy.

  4. James Edward Emmett Fox says:

    Obama is like the tar baby that one stupid Republican said. He is very smart and sees things from the long view.
    I will vote for him, work for him, and cheer him on. And oh I am unemployed, just making month to month,
    82 years old and looking forward to 4 more years after 2012 of his leadership. as EJ wrote he is getting ready.
    Do any of you remember when he accepted the Republican invite a couple of years ago. He walked in to the
    lions den and tied knots in their tails. Watch him when the Tea Party canidate, as that is what they all are now
    comes up against him in the debates. Their tea bags will be sliced and diced and the tea leafs will be running
    all over their faces as their tears will make for a new type of tea.

    The Republican party will lose so big in 2012 because they went over the bend and bent to the baggers, then
    watch the screams, laments and the old guard rushing for the exits saying. The baggers did us in!!
    The baggers did us in.!!!

  5. CWis says:

    I agree with you, James Edward. John Mack, what’s a “real Democrat”? And Hillary Clinton would be more of the past same, those of you who think he should be replaced by her. Plus, that’s a stupid idea. Has it not occurred to everyone that the reason we’re in this mess today is because we Democrats didn’t all get our butts to the polls in 2010 and so left room for those crazies to get in Congress and create all this mess? If you wanted Obama’s plan (actually the people’s plan) to have a fair chance we should have ALL voted so we could get a Congress that would work with Obama, work for this country’s survival! Democrats outnumber Republican votes (45% to 35%). You do the math! Now, Obama did the right thing in choosing to side with the people in need; and he got that Sword of Damocles the Repubs were wielding–the budget ceiling lifted and not up for repeat discussion and battle–out of the way. Plus bought time for the very social support programs we all want. It’s up to us to get our collective Democratic butts to the polls and put in a Congress that will work for him and The People. And we KNOW that “ain’t” the Republicans.

  6. CWis says:

    I meant Democrat voters outnumber Republican voters 45% to 35%.

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