A fork in the road for Obama

By Dan Balz
Sunday, December 5, 2010

In the weeks after his election two years ago, President Obama was often linked to two other presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Today, Democrats debate whether he should act more like Harry Truman or Bill Clinton to avoid becoming another Jimmy Carter.

Those early associations partly reflected the fact that Obama was coming to office at a time of great national problems, with an economy as weak as any since the Great Depression.

They were fed by Obama's habit of looking to Lincoln, a fellow Illinoisan, for inspiration - though he resisted direct comparisons - right down to the decision to follow the route of Lincoln's final train ride into the capital before his inauguration.

But the comparisons with two of America's greatest presidents also reflected the wildly inflated expectations that accompanied him into the Oval Office. After two difficult years, those are gone for now. Obama now has to fend off suggestions that, like Carter, he is in danger of being a one-term president.

But is it Truman or Clinton who provides the better alternative model? Both of those former Democratic presidents suffered major defeats in their first midterm elections. Truman's Democrats lost 55 House seats in 1946, while Clinton's party lost 54 House seats in 1994. Both came back to win two years later.

Democrats are divided over many things, including which president Obama should emulate as he decides how to respond to the thrashing he and his party suffered in last month's midterms.

Right now there is little goodwill on the left toward the president. Liberals are up in arms amid talk of compromise on extending the George W. Bush tax cuts for all Americans, rather than allowing rates to rise for the wealthiest. They see Obama today as weak, vacillating and lacking either convictions or the gumption to fight for the principles they believe got him elected. They want a fighter in the White House who will put the Republicans in their place.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an unabashed liberal, was quoted last week as saying that if Obama caves on tax cuts, "he's going to have a lot of swimming upstream" to do. Liberal blogger Jane Hamsher accused Obama of "cynical charades" in his discussions about a compromise on tax cuts and unemployment insurance. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called Obama's freeze on federal workers' pay "transparently cynical."

But other Democrats see dangers in a strategy of confrontation and argue that an alternative approach can win back the independent Democrats lost last month.

Liberals may be disillusioned, but they still voted for Democrats in the midterms. Independents defected in significant numbers. Many are worried about the president's policies, and many think he has failed to fulfill his promise to reduce partisanship and change the way Washington works. They want results and expect cooperation between the parties.

What is the right strategy for Obama to regain the political initiative and put his presidency back on track? Should he hold firm, push a liberal agenda and provoke fights with the Republicans, as Truman did? That would reenergize his liberal base and sharpen his profile with the public.

Or should he be a conciliator, as Clinton tried to be, cooperating when possible with congressional Republicans but resisting when he believes they have gone too far right? That might show the Republicans as obstructionists and bring independents back to his side heading toward 2012.

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