Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Time for cool Obama to get real hot, tough and dirty

Business Times - 23 Jul 2009

Time for cool Obama to get real hot, tough and dirty


HE has been described as cool, calm and collected; so poised and so composed. He has the grace of Fred Astaire and the refinement of Cary Grant, the most elegant man to occupy the White House since 'Jack' Kennedy. He is the 'No-Drama' Barack Obama, who eats right, exercises regularly and shoots hoops in between ridding the world of a few Somali pirates.

Remember when the Commander-in-Chief's skills were put to the test when he was doing an interview with CNBC television and a pesky fly started buzzing around, interrupting the proceedings, and zeroing in on the president? Without missing a beat, Mr Obama, revealing his impressive hand-eye coordination and employing the reflexes of a ninja warrior, waited for it to land on the back of his left hand, and pow! . . . down came his right hand on the fly, handily dispatching the pest to a better world.

But some non-Obamaniacs are not so impressed with the smooth operator from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who never seems to get his hand dirty, who refrains from picking a fight, and who never dares his rival to 'bring it on' (like you-know-who . . . ) and who pulls out his gun and shoots to kill only if the bad guy pulls out his.

Indeed, even his admirers who celebrate Mr Obama as an analytical thinker and compare him to a focused chess player have expressed their frustration over what is seen as his incapacity to get angry. They would like to see him sometimes get annoyed, if not start sweating and fuming, getting mad as hell and threatening to obliterate his political adversaries at home and abroad.

Not that there are many officials, lawmakers and pundits in Washington and elsewhere who are not relieved that after eight years of the loud-mouthed and reckless Bush-Cheney team mismanaging affairs, sowing deep political divisions among Americans and alienating the rest of the world with its wild conduct, a responsible grown-up is now in charge - someone who seems to abide by former president Teddy Roosevelt's famous dictum: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick.'

But what happens when your adversary does not believe that you are willing to use that big stick - or, even worse, that the stick is not available to you?

That perception not only plays into your opponents' hands, it also raises doubts among current allies about your ability to get your agenda going and encourages them to jump from your ship.

And that is exactly where President Obama is finding himself now as he tries to press both Democrats and Republicans to approve his plans to reform the ailing US healthcare system.

Republican leaders sense that the president may even have difficulty convincing many centrist Democrats, who are concerned about the costs of the healthcare reform plan that would have to be paid by raising taxes, to back his programme.

One Republican senator has expressed his hope that the debate over healthcare reform would turn out to be 'Obama's Waterloo' and mark the start of his political disintegration. Indeed, there is a growing recognition among the supporters of the president on Capitol Hill and the media that, sooner or later, Mr Obama would soon have no choice but to get dirty - real dirty.

President Obama's expectation that he could fashion bipartisan support for his new domestic and foreign policy agenda, including his healthcare reforms, was based on a lot of wishful thinking.

Major changes in policy are bound to ignite resistance from interest groups and their allies in Washington. And eventually a president - if he really wants to win support from lawmakers for these changes - has to exploit his position as the Persuader-in-Chief to energise large segments of the public to press their representatives in Washington to get behind the president.

Failing to do that creates a vicious circle as declining public support creates even more incentives for lawmakers to challenge the White House, which is where Mr Obama finds himself now with the recent opinion polls reflecting an erosion in public backing for his healthcare plan.

Until recently, Mr Obama had the luxury of selling policies that had the Democratic-controlled Congress's stamp of approval. And when it came to most domestic and foreign policy issues, he has been careful in most cases not to antagonise key bureaucratic and interest groups on Wall Street, in the Pentagon, and so on. That kind of legislative and political smooth-selling may have allowed the president to project his cool, calm and collected persona.

Now comes the part of very hard selling when Mr Obama would have to demonstrate that he can wipe out more than just annoying flies.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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