Obama Has the High Ground—Will He Use It?

In the final press conference of his first term, President Obama didn't have much enthusiasm for his position.

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He looked cornered, angry, and defensive. Once the media's darling, now he felt forced in the crucible of the public eye. He has climbed many mountains, but the thrill is gone. 

No, I'm not talking about Lance Armstrong. I mean Barack Obama yesterday, at his last White House press conference before Monday's inaugural.   

When the leader of the free world is reduced to saying, "I like a good party," then you wonder. The man just won re-election, so why doesn't he sound happy to be here? 

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

At this midway point, never has the 44th president had so much right on his side. Never have his enemies been so wrong. Obama has the high ground on pressing for serious gun control legislation after the nation endured the bloody murder of women and children in a Connecticut school one morning last month. Public opinion is on his side, even if the National Rifle Association is the fiercest lobby in the history of the world. The cerebral  president feels he has a moral imperative to act on this by assigning the grubby political work to the vice president, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. 

Obama does not enjoy brandishing power in the heat of battle, but Washington presidential politics is one Shakespearean donnybrook after another. He should have stayed in the Senate, the land of long speeches, if he can't stand the sight of blood.  

Likewise, the debt ceiling situation looming this winter is set up for Obama. He has right on his side, in that the full faith and credit of the United States is precious beyond all party politics. But he also has might if he'd use it, the mighty mandate of the American people choosing him, not a band of House Republican Tea Party brothers, to represent us. His office is much greater than the sum of their parts. Just to review, House Speaker John Boehner has only ever been elected by one Ohio district—and a man of the people he is not. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Last time around, Obama surrendered to Boehner and his ornery caucus on the debt ceiling limit, by postponing the second go-round to now. In the post-election scene shift, his strategy so far is to declare he won't negotiate on this issue. Lots of luck, but the hands-off policy may be too subtle to carry the day. Either Obama should make clear he will use his own authority to raised the debt ceiling or take House Republicans to the court of public opinion every single day between now and mid-February. There he should throttle them.

That brings us to the last point: sociability. Obama was challenged by a reporter for seeming AWOL on that front. This was a perfect opportunity to say something scathing with a smile on his face, in the English manner of a polite, clever insult. But no. He stumbled a bit, and sounded distinctly unenthusiastic about sitting down at a table with his enemies. And who can blame him for not wanting to hang with House Republicans who would do anything to hang him? They make Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, seem a statesman of sweet reason. (It was he who declared the main goal was to make Obama a one-term president.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The social climate has changed and heated up here, as surely as global warming. Obama has no need to pretend otherwise. For we are living in a partisan world and he can't rise above its depths, I'm sorry to say, gentleman that he truly is. The other true gentleman at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue over the last century was patrician Franklin Delano Roosevelt, armed with perfect manners. Yet there are two things Roosevelt should lend and lease to Obama: a streak of exuberance and a passion for the fight, the fray of political combat.  

"I welcome their hatred," Roosevelt once said, denouncing greed on Wall Street. Obama, too, has excellent enemies to make a president proud. He'd best make the most of them, going forward.    

  • Read Peter Roff: President Obama's Press Conference Was Full of Nothing
  • Read Susan Milligan: Obama Acting on the Debt Ceiling Is No Power Grab
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