The Fighting Conciliator

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, February 9, 2009

It took less than three weeks for the real Barack Obama to come into view. He turns out to be both a conciliator and a fighter.

These are not contradictions in his character. They represent different sides of a politician who sees some issues as more susceptible to compromise than others and who wants his adversaries to know that his easygoing style does not make him a pushover.

The sudden clarity emerged in the two best speeches of his short presidency and in the ongoing saga of the stimulus bill.

Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday with a warning against the use of religion "as a tool to divide us from one another -- as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance."

Obama did not cite Isaiah's injunction that we should come and reason together, a favorite biblical passage of Lyndon B. Johnson's, but it seemed to be on his mind: "For it is only through common struggle and common effort, as brothers and sisters, that we fulfill our highest purpose as beloved children of God."

That was in the morning. By evening, when the president spoke to Democratic House members in Williamsburg, he had cast aside his efforts to placate Republicans who had no intention of reasoning with him on the stimulus bill. Obama had turned the other cheek often enough.

"Don't come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis," the born-again campaigner thundered. "We are not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin."

Deploying a preacher's unapologetically judgmental cadences, Obama denounced "the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face." He reiterated that argument in his Saturday radio address and will press it in speeches on the road this week.

The Williamsburg speech let loose a great gnashing of teeth from those who seem to believe that bipartisan form matters more than substance. But the new tone reflected the very thing about Obama that has won so much notice: He's a pragmatist who takes a method and tries it until it no longer works.

Initially, Obama hoped to win broad Republican support for his stimulus package, but most Republicans preferred to bloody up this new, young president. Obama adjusted. If the GOP wanted a fight, he would not back down.

Obama's tougher rhetoric and terrible new economic news helped push a handful of wavering senators to agree to a compromise stimulus bill on Friday. Still, there was a cost to Obama's delayed response to Republican provocations. By giving conservatives a week to savage the House-passed stimulus, Obama weakened his negotiating hand.

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