By DeWayne Wickham
For much of his time in the White House, the rap against Barack Obama has been that he is a weak leader — a man who is a much better talker than doer when it comes to managing the nation’s affairs.
Don’t believe it.
For many of his critics, this knock against the nation’s first black president stems from his low-key approach to combating Republican opposition to virtually everything he does — and his passive response to the disrespect of GOP members, like those who called him a liar during a speech on the House floor, who wouldn’t take his call in middle of the debt ceiling crisis, and who referred to him as a “boy” and “tar baby.”
But while Obama ducked these skirmishes, he’s a more tenacious — and smarter in-fighter — than a lot of people think. Proof of this can be found in his recent address to a joint session of Congress, in which the president spelled out his plan to combat this nation’s painfully high unemployment rate.
Obama’s proposal — called the American Jobs Act — is good policy and a smart political tactic. In a disarming move, he took elements of the tax cuts Republicans obsess over and blended them in with an aggressive plan to spend $447 billion to help put people back to work.
Among other things, his plan calls for a payroll tax cut for small businesses, a tax credit for firms that hire military veterans and people who have been looking for work for more than six months. All of which will be paid for, Obama said, by federal spending cuts.
“There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America,” he said of a major rebuilding project that needs to be done on a road that connects the states of Congress’ top Republicans — House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
And there’s a “public transit project in Houston that will help clear up one of the worst areas of traffic in the country,” Obama said in urging Congress “to pass this jobs bill.”
How petty — and uncaring — will Republicans be if they block the president’s proposal from getting a fair hearing and a vote in both houses of Congress? How much harm will they do their party if they try to extract an ideological victory from Obama’s push for passage of his jobs bill? That’s the trap Obama has set for his foes.
While Obama hasn’t always fought the battles some of his constituents wanted him to wage, his reluctance — I’m convinced — has been a matter of strategy, not weakness. He ran as a candidate of “change” and once in office tried to temper the political backbiting in the nation’s capital.
But the GOP’s intransigence during the recent debt ceiling crisis has forced the president to be less conciliatory and more strategic in his dealing with congressional Republicans. Now Obama is taking the fight to them. And the contest for the hearts and minds of a nation frustrated by the partisan war in Washington is being framed by his plan to put America back to work.
“Regardless of the arguments we’ve had in the past, regardless of the arguments we will have in the future, this plan is the right thing to do right now. You should pass it,” Obama told Congress.
Like a commander who has outflanked an advancing enemy army, the president now waits to see if his opponents will seek a truce, or fight a suicidal battle.