The president answered by acknowledging, "I've been getting a lot of this in the press lately." He then launched into a long reply that previewed what is to come after Labor Day. It is then, he said, that he will propose a "very specific plan" on the economy. And if Congress does not adopt it, "then we'll be running against a Congress that's not doing anything for the American people, and the choice will be very stark and will be very clear." He concluded his answer stating that "the other side is unreasonable. And you ... don't want to reward unreasonableness. Look, I get that."
If the president follows through on this new "get-tough" approach, it will be only after the pleadings of many outside Democratic strategists who have worried that repeated GOP attacks have combined with failed attempts at compromise to wound Obama politically. Even early in the debt-ceiling debate, it was clear that the president was sensitive about attacks on his leadership. "I've got to say, I'm very amused when I start hearing comments about, well, the president needs to show more leadership on this," he said at his June 29 press conference. He listed all the meetings he had convened, concluding, "Let's get it done."
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But no one in the White House is amused at the further deterioration of Obama's standing -- nor at the National Republican Senatorial Committee that turned that remark into a TV commercial mocking his leadership skills. The ad shows him playing ping-pong and drinking Guinness in an Irish pub while the screen scrolls "76 rounds of golf, 48 days of vacation, 149 fundraisers."
The decline in what one White House aide called "the leadership brand" is clear from the polling. In April 2009, Gallup found 73 percent of Americans who said that Obama was a "strong leader." In May 2010, that had declined to 60 percent. In March 2011, Gallup had it down to 52 percent. There has been no more recent polling on that issue, but aides fear that after Libya and the debt-ceiling debate, the number almost certainly has dropped again.
According to the two senior officials, the plan to arrest that decline is for Obama to no longer be seen as above the fray. While they believe Republicans were both wrong and unfair to claim the president had no plan to bring down the deficit, they know it hurt him. So they will try to show the president as having specific plans and then show him fighting for them. No more will the president be focusing primarily on issues that can attract bipartisan support and appeal to a Republican House. And no longer will he be so willing to let Congress work out the details on its own.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), is one who was particularly frustrated with the president's approach to Congress. In an interview this week with National Review Online, Simpson said, "One thing that's puzzled me from the beginning of this administration is that, on every major piece of legislation, he's said, 'Let Congress decide.' " Simpson said all other recent presidents understood that Congress wants to know what a president wants. "They always had a plan to show us."