As angry Democrats beat a path to television cameras Wednesday to denounce a White House tax compromise with Republicans, President Obama was making a show of being presidential.
He dispatched Vice President Biden to Capitol Hill to deal with lawmakers. He summoned his Cabinet for a meeting. He met with the president of Poland and, for a rare second day in a row, took questions from reporters.
Throughout, Obama was brusque, businesslike, delegating and in control. In short, he was very unlike the conciliatory, deliberative, consensus-seeking leader he has largely been until now.
“He is essentially a nonconfrontational guy,” said Clark Ervin, a political scholar at the Aspen Institute who served on Obama's transition team. “The question is whether you can succeed as president if you are nonconfrontational, especially when you have such viscerally, intractably confrontational people on the other side.”
Dismissing the concerns of his own party and staunchly defending a deal he cut with congressional Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans in exchange for a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits and other considerations, Obama continued to defend his deal as “the right thing to do.”
“You've just had economists over the last 24, 48 hours examine this and say this is going to boost the economy, it is going to grow the economy, it is going to increase the likelihood that we can drive down the unemployment rate,” Obama told reporters.
Despite the president's assured tones, the White House was in full campaign message mode.
Throughout the day, the White House sent out e-mail alerts about prominent Democrats who are supporting the president's tax policy framework, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.
While some Democrats in Congress complained that Obama wouldn't fight for them, Obama demonstrated he is willing to fight against them — a potent message for 2012, and for the politically migratory independent voters Obama is hoping to woo back to his column in time for his re-election campaign.
“He is certainly straining to prove that he is tough,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist. “But there is a real threat to the White House now in that it is officially open season on the administration from the left and the right.”
Still, Obama may rack up at least one other key initiative on the steam of his tax deal.
Negotiating the tax agreement may have created enough space in the Senate's calendar for consideration of the stalled START treaty, a arms pact with Russia that is near the top of Obama's foreign policy agenda.
Republicans had stalled ratification of the treaty, saying there wasn't enough time to consider it before the end of the year, but Obama effectively called their bluff by striking a tax deal they could live with and then resuming pressure to ratify START.
The key risk in all of this for Obama is that he not a naturally tough character. Scott Sandage, a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, said Obama's short stint in the Senate didn't give him a killer instinct for legislative wrangling.
“It often seems like when Obama recedes, he is trusting the process to drive itself — and it just doesn't work that way,” Sandage said.