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Obama needs to flex his political muscle

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Across the pond, the news has been of bullying.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is accused, in a new book by British journalist Andrew Rawnsley, of shouting obscenities at his advisers, grabbing one by the collar, punching the seatback in his car, abusing switchboard operators and even forcing a secretary from her chair when she wasn't typing fast enough. Workers at 10 Downing Street have called a bullying hotline seeking help.

Here in America, however, we can only watch this behavior with envy. Our president is not a bully; in fact, he is the victim of bullying. He is bullied by Republicans on health care. He is bullied by congressional Democrats on everything. He is bullied by his own Cabinet. Dick Cheney pauses in his bullying of Obama only for the occasional heart attack.

Admittedly, the allegations against Brown have only hastened his political decline, and there's no need for Obama to start kicking furniture and throwing BlackBerrys at people, as Brown stands accused of doing. Still, it wouldn't hurt for the occupant of the bully pulpit to show some force of will.

His predecessor got a narrowly divided Congress to pass his tax cuts, authorize the Iraq war and give him the Patriot Act, not through logic or eloquence but by bludgeoning, intimidating and threatening holdouts (remember Jim Jeffords or Max Cleland?). Lawmakers weren't swayed by George W. Bush's arguments; they feared retribution.

But now, the world's most powerful man too often plays the 98-pound weakling; he gets sand kicked in his face and responds with moot-court zingers. That's what Mr. Cool did at the White House health-care summit on Thursday. For seven hours, he racked up debating points as he parried Republican attacks without so much as raising his voice, but the performance didn't exactly intimidate his foes.

He was calm and collected when Senate Minority Whip Sen. Jon Kyl took a demagogic turn. "Does Washington know best about the coverage people should have?" he asked. "Or should people have that choice themselves?"

Obama replied: "Can I just say that, at this point, any time the question is phrased as, 'Does Washington know better,' I think we're, kind of, tipping the scales a little bit there. . . . It's a good talking point, but it doesn't actually answer the underlying question."

Obama took the same cerebral approach when Sen. John McCain made a lengthy comment accusing Obama of breaking campaign promises and of unsavory and "particularly offensive" deal-making.

"John, if I could say -- "

"Could I just finish, please?" McCain bullied.

Finally, Obama calmly redirected his foe. "We can spend the remainder of the time with our respective talking points," he said. "We were supposed to be talking about insurance."


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