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It's past time for President Obama to show some leadership

By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; A08

It's a rotten time in Washington, and I'm not just talking about the snow. Health-care reform, financial regulation, the jobs bill, the long-term budget deficit, energy and climate change -- everywhere you turn, there's political stalemate. Poll numbers are plummeting, and many good people either have been reduced to shameless pandering (John McCain) or are simply giving up and going home (Byron Dorgan, Evan Bayh, Billy Tauzin).

While we're passing out the blame, however, let's not forget a heaping helping for the public. I can genuflect with the best of them before "the basic decency and wisdom of the American people," but the truth is that on many issues these days, the American people are badly confused.

They want Wall Street to be reined in, but they're dead set against more regulation.

They want everyone to have access to affordable health insurance, but they're wary of expanding the role of government.

They want the government to do something to create jobs, but not if it involves spending more money.

They want the federal deficit brought under control, but not if it means cutting entitlement spending or raising taxes.

They want to do something about global warming, but not if it raises energy prices.

We think we know how the public feels about these issues because of the number of e-mails that arrive on Capitol Hill, the temperature of the comments on cable television or talk radio, and the results of recent polls. But in reality, these are not the definitive political judgments of the American people, nor will they dictate voting behavior in November.

Believe it or not, outside Washington, Americans don't spend much time debating whether there ought to be a public option in the health insurance market, or whether consumer protection should be separated from bank supervision, or whether terrorists ought to be tried in criminal courts or by military tribunals. They expect that such issues will be decided by elected officials who understand their sometimes conflicting values and desires and use good judgment in resolving them.

Viewed in that context, the current political disarray need not be an insurmountable problem for President Obama, but rather could represent a golden opportunity to demonstrate the leadership the country needs and craves. He will not demonstrate that leadership by running around to carefully staged events in which he tells ordinary voters what he thinks they want to hear. Nor will he demonstrate it by redoubling efforts of his PR war room to respond to every attack or piece of Republican disinformation with overwhelming rhetorical force. Rather, the real challenge is whether the president can strengthen the bond of trust between himself and the American people by having the courage to tell the hard truths and make the hard decisions, irrespective of short-term political consequences and the tut-tutting of the commentariat.

The irony is that only by doing that which may be unpopular and unpolitic can the president revive his longer-run political fortunes.

Over the past year, Obama's singular mistake was to think he could rely on the Democratic leadership and a Democratic majority in Congress to deliver on his electoral mandate. Caught in crossfire between the House and Senate, liberals and centrists, Democratic special interests and independent voters, he wound up raising too much doubt about his most fundamental promise -- to change the way business is done in Washington. Worse still, he wound up convincing members of Congress that he needed them more than they needed him.

It should be obvious now that the president cannot leave it to Congress to sort things out. They can't and they won't, as evidenced most recently by the Senate fiasco involving the so-called jobs bill. For the next several months, he needs to create a sense of urgency and expectation, consulting widely and privately with Republicans and Democrats and interested parties who care more about getting things done than winning the next election. Based on those conversations and his own sense of what the public will accept, he needs to put forward a set of compromise proposals on jobs, health care, financial reform and the budget. And then he needs to park himself in the President's Room at the Capitol, along with top aides and Cabinet members, and refuse to leave until he has put together working majorities for each proposal -- with the help of legislative leaders if possible, but without them if necessary.

By July 4, it will be over. He will have either a legislative record that ensures continuation of a working majority in Congress or a legitimate grievance that he can take to the voters in November in search of one. Either way, he'll be in a better place politically than he is now.

This Presidents' Day week, we celebrate the leadership of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who confronted far worse division and dissent in their times. The reason we remember them as great presidents is that they threw off the yoke of party loyalty, defied popular opinion and used the full weight of their office to do what had to be done. They understood, or came to understand, an important truth: that only after they had demonstrated that they were willing to lead, and lead boldly, were the people willing to follow and drag Congress along with them.

It turns out that successful political leadership is not about this strategy or that tactic or where you place yourself on the left-right ideological spectrum. What it's mostly about is character.

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