I think Ezra basically has this right:
...though Obama's unwillingness to follow other people's legislative and procedural preferences is often attributed to his lack of "toughness," it's more commonly the product of a genuine difference in strategy or policy analysis. If Obama punched 50 pit bulls in the face and then defeated them in hand-to-hand combat, but still refused to torture detainees, what would that do to his toughness quotient?All of which makes toughness a weird thing to talk about. It would be better if people just got specific about what they wanted Obama to do, and then we could talk about whether it's a good idea for him to do it. Instead, there's a lot of "Obama needs to get tough with House Democrats," but it all gets really vague when you ask how, exactly, he's supposed to be tough with House Democrats, or with China.
"Obama isn't tough enough" is an escape hatch for people who don't want to think. It suits antsy citizens whose frustration can't be soothed by practical, tangible arguments. It suits pundits and reporters by allowing them to create action where is none, to attribute simple solutions to stubborn problems, while avoiding policy and process that they often don't actually understand.
And it suits liberals who doubt their own toughness, who are afraid of Joe the Plumber, and think everything you need to know about American politics can be gleaned from the defeat of Michael Dukakis. It always 1988 for some of us. Or 1968.