Obama needs to flex his political muscle

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, February 28, 2010; A09

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."

House Minority Leader John Boehner got the cool treatment, too, when he made his canned speech about how Obama wants a government takeover of health care.

Again, Obama reminded his tormenter that "the standard talking points" don't "drive us to an agreement on issues."

Contrast that with some of Prime Minister Brown's behaviors, as described by Rawnsley.

When one adviser arranged a lunch for Brown with European diplomats, Brown allegedly shoved the aide and said: "I don't want to meet these [expletive] people." Informed by another aide about a mishap at the British customs service, Brown was said to have "leapt across the room" and grabbed the aide by the collar. And when it was learned that he had given a speech that echoed lines of American politicians, Brown allegedly screamed, "How could you [expletive] do this to me?" at his speechwriter and shouted at aides: "Just get out of the [expletive] room!"

Other journalists recounted allegations of Brown striking aides with BlackBerrys, kicking over a table and, on one factory tour, throwing a tangerine into a laminating machine.

Now, let's see how those behaviors could have been applied to Republicans at last week's health summit.

Kyl: "Does Washington know best about the coverage people should have?"

Obama: (kicks over table.) "Just get out of the [expletive] room!"

McCain: "My constituents and Americans . . . say go back to the beginning."

Obama: (leaps up and grabs McCain by the collar.) "How could you [expletive] do this to me!"

Boehner: "This 2,700-page bill will bankrupt our country."

Obama: "I don't want to meet with these [expletive] people!" (Throws his BlackBerry at Boehner's head. Pushes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell out of his chair. Strikes Sen. Lamar Alexander with fruit.)

Okay, so maybe doing the full Gordon Brown isn't such a good idea. But forcing his agenda through Congress with less brain and more brawn would be just bully.

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