The White House, burned by failed efforts to work with Republicans and dismayed by a growing perception that President Obama is a weak leader, has made the decision to put more pressure—and blame—on Congress when Obama returns to Washington after his family vacation.
That represents a strategic shift for a president who burst onto the national scene in 2004 with a call for national unity and a condemnation of “those who are preparing to divide us.” But it reflects a growing concern among the president’s senior advisers that the battles over the past six months about Libya and Egypt and the debt ceiling have done serious damage to his leadership image.
They do not want to risk letting that damage become permanent, according to two senior White House officials who asked not to be identified so they could speak frankly.
The president will launch the new approach with a speech on jobs soon after Labor Day, White House officials have confirmed. In it, he will urge the deficit super committee to look for cuts beyond the $1.5 trillion called for in the agreement that ended the debt showdown.
The first sign of the new strategy emerged on Monday night at the president’s town-hall meeting in Decorah, Iowa. The very first question was a surprisingly pointed one from a woman who was there with her daughter. After noting that Obama had built “a tremendous amount of trust” during the campaign, she pressed him on why he had surrendered to Republicans on so many key points in negotiations over health care, taxes, and the national debt.
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The president answered by acknowledging, “I’ve been getting a lot of this in the press lately.” He then launched into a long reply that previewed what is to come after Labor Day. It is then, he said, that he will propose a "very specific plan” on the economy. And if Congress does not adopt it, “then we’ll be running against a Congress that’s not doing anything for the American people, and the choice will be very stark and will be very clear.” He concluded his answer stating that “the other side is unreasonable. And you ... don’t want to reward unreasonableness. Look, I get that.”
If the president follows through on this new “get tough” approach, it will be only after the pleadings of many outside Democratic strategists who have worried that repeated GOP attacks have combined with failed attempts at compromise to wound Obama politically.
Even early in the debt-ceiling debate, it was clear that the president was sensitive about attacks on his leadership. “I’ve got to say, I’m very amused when I start hearing comments about, well, the president needs to show more leadership on this,” he said at his June 29 press conference. He listed all the meetings he had convened, concluding, “Let’s get it done.”
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But no one in the White House is amused at the further deterioration of Obama's standing—nor at the National Republican Senatorial Committee that turned that remark into a TV commercial mocking his leadership skills. The ad shows him playing Ping-Pong and drinking Guinness in an Irish pub while the screen scrolls “76 rounds of golf, 48 days of vacation, 149 fundraisers.”
The decline in what one White House aide called “the leadership brand” is clear from the polling. In April 2009, Gallup found 73 percent of Americans who said that Obama was a “strong leader.” In May 2010, that had declined to 60 percent. In March 2011, Gallup had it down to 52 percent. There has been no more recent polling on that issue, but aides fear that after Libya and the debt-ceiling debate, the number almost certainly has dropped again.