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Americans elected a visionary, not a fighter

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By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In the run-up to Barack Obama's State of the Union address, the so-called narrative question is whether the president will be -- pick a curtain -- party leader, president, conciliator or fighter.

Depending on whose head is talking, the president's problem is that he's been: (a) playing party politics and not leading the nation; (b) stuck in community-organizer mode, seeking consensus rather than fighting.

So agitated have SOTU speculators become that some have resorted to counting the number of times Obama uses the word "fight," or some variation thereof, in recent gatherings and speeches.

At a Monday morning meeting of his Middle Class Task Force, Obama said: "We're going to keep fighting to renew the American dream." Later, he said, "Joe [Biden] and I are going to keep on fighting for what matters to middle-class families." By one reporter's count, Obama used the word "fight" or "fighting" four times in a seven-minute speech.

In Ohio last week, according to another tabulator, the president used fighting words more than 20 times: "I won't stop fighting to open up government," he said. "I won't stop fighting to bring back jobs here." And, "I'll never stop fighting."

By Monday morning, Politico's Mike Allen was quoting a White House official who said key themes of the SOTU would include "creating good jobs, addressing the deficit, changing Washington, and fighting for middle-class families."

Not to leap to conclusions, but it would seem that Obama intends to fight. Like The Narrator in "Fight Club," he has tired of hugging victims and wants to punch the daylights out of . . . somebody. But didn't Obama run on just the opposite?

We're not a nation of red states or blue states, he told us. We are the United States of America. Except we're not -- and that's the problem Obama faces Wednesday night. The emergence of Obama's heretofore-absent pugilist merely adds another layer to the real challenge before him. Is he trustworthy?

For a year now, Obama's visionary, unifying words haven't matched the results. It isn't entirely his fault, but his leftward agenda took him far from center field where he was when optimistic Americans watched his pregame warmup. Since last January, watching him has been like watching a movie where the soundtrack hasn't been synchronized with the actors' lips.

Meanwhile, we have become not a purple, but a Brown nation. As in Scott. Like Obama himself, Brown -- an imperfect candidate under any other circumstances -- was the right man in the right place at the right time.

Brown's unlikely Senate election hinged most likely as much on the X-factor of trust as on his promise to be the 41st vote against health-care reform. Voters may not have known the finer points of his résumé, but they "knew" him. They recognized him from the sandlot. They'd seen his truck. They trusted his regular-guyness.

The Obama administration has taken note, and so the new war whoop is populism. Having noticed that Americans are most concerned about jobs and out-of-control government spending, the president is suddenly riveted by middle-class despair. And, of course, the anger.

Everybody's ticked, if for different reasons. Tea-party activists are enraged by expanding government, higher taxes (even though many of those in the throng received tax cuts as part of the stimulus package) and health-care reform that, though comprehensive, managed to leave out tort reform. The left is angry because Obama wasn't tough enough to push through legislation despite Democratic majorities in both houses.

Even Obama, the usually imperturbable sphinx -- the man with the straight face and the light-switch smile -- is getting hot under the collar. He doesn't mind a good fight, he says. Perchance, to bring 'em on?

It is traditional for presidents to paint a rosier picture of circumstances than reality warrants, and Obama isn't likely to veer from that script. The hope-and-change agent can hardly wear a sad face as he appraises his first year. But neither can he portray himself as a slugger in chief.

Americans didn't elect a fighter; they elected a visionary who promised a new spirit of cohesion, cooperation and community. While some now may view their romance with hope as a one-night stand, voters are reliably fickle. They can be courted and persuaded, but first they have to trust.

Regaining trust is Obama's real challenge, and being true to his own character is fundamental to that end. Americans know a faux fighter when they see one. If Obama comes out swinging, he is likely to lose.

kathleenparker@washpost.com


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