Obama a Charmer at Home, Tough Guy Abroad

President charms Congress, rattles saber at North Korea.


"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.

President Obama continued his charm offensive last week. He met with opposition Republicans in the House and Senate, and also got together with Democratic legislators in an effort to keep his own party members in line behind his agenda.

But at the same time, he was sending tough signals to North Korea, a rogue nation whose leaders are again rattling the saber and threatening the United States with war.

It's part of the parallel universes in which our commanders in chief reside. They often have to take different stances at home and abroad, and that's why flexibility has become such an essential part of any successful presidency.

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In domestic affairs, Obama has shifted gears and is now using a light touch, showing a congenial side. This comes after he and his allies spent weeks hammering the Republicans over the budget, gun control, and other issues. But that strategy appears to have fallen flat, and Obama's positive ratings are sinking. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows his job approval rating at 50 percent, five percentage points lower than it was in late January. Just as important, Americans trust him less to deal effectively with the economy.

So Obama has changed course and is now using outreach and personal appeals to "common sense" rather than partisanship to lift his ratings and make progress on his agenda. He told ABC News this week that he is willing to compromise to accomplish the biggest objectives of his second term—creating jobs and making the economy grow.

Republicans remain skeptical. "The troubling part of the president's outreach is that it is so infrequent that it can rightly lead to cynicism about his motives," says Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. "We're taking him at his word that this is a good-faith effort. But the proof will be in the follow-through." A senior administration official told the Washington Post: "The best shot now at getting anything done is to build from the middle out in the House, not through the leadership. I wouldn't say this is a change in strategy, but it is a new approach due to a change in circumstances."

[READ: Conservatives Avoiding Obama's Charm Offensive]

In foreign affairs, it's a different story. Toughness is now the mantra as Obama appears to be adopting President Ronald Reagan's philosophy of "peace through strength."

The administration has served notice that it will stand up to the North Korean regime if Pyongyang resorts to the use of force, as was threatened this week by North Korean ruler Kim Jong-Un. The Pyongyang regime even announced that it is voiding the armistice that ended the Korean war in the 1950s. U.S. officials warn that the North Korean regime would be making a fatal mistake to confront the United States or America's long-term ally, South Korea, with military force because the allies' retaliation would be swift and overwhelming.

A senior Democratic strategist predicts that Obama will handle the Korean situation adroitly. Obama advisers note that the president has already proven his capacity for toughness by ordering the raid that resulted in the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. "He's never going to be a cowboy diplomat," the strategist says. "That's not his nature, and it didn't serve the country well in the George W. Bush years. But I don't think he'll flinch on international issues."

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The most successful modern presidents, dealing with a rapidly changing world at home and abroad, managed to find a way to stay true to their core principles and at the same time adjust to new circumstances. Reagan confronted the Soviet Union, which he called an "evil empire," during his first term in the 1980s. But he changed his approach when reformer Mikhail Gorbachev took over the Kremlin, and the two leaders formed a remarkable partnership that helped to end the Cold War. Bill Clinton deferred to congressional liberals during his first two years in office but when voters recoiled in the mid-term elections of 1994, he moved toward the center and went on to have a successful presidency.

Today, Obama is demonstrating that he possesses the savvy and confidence to make changes when situations demand it. He is showing a softer side at home and a tougher side abroad. And that kind of nimbleness may be what the times require.