Rope-a-Dope?

ROPE-A-DOPE?…. The idea of Barack Obama playing “rope-a-dope” with his rivals has been talked about before. He reportedly utilized the approach during the Democratic nominating fight, and again in the general election. Noam Scheiber, describing the president as “a master rope-a-doper,” argues today we’re seeing it again with the debate over an economic stimulus.

For weeks now, Obama has soared above the fray — inviting dour-looking Republicans to the White House for cookies and patiently hearing them out on Capitol Hill. Once again, the Republicans have exploited this stance, notching a series of tactical victories, like their unanimous no-vote in the House last week. And, once again, liberals have panicked. […]

But complaints like this miss what’s been accomplished these last few weeks: Obama has completely defined the stimulus narrative on his own terms. To the average voter, Obama has been earnest and conciliatory while the Republicans have been cynical, self-serving, and puerile. Which, if the past is any guide, is precisely the moment he’ll start playing hardball.

In fact, Obama spent Monday basically telegraphing these intentions. The headlines from his trip to Elkhart, Indiana, focused mostly on his comments about the urgency of the stimulus. But the day’s key moment took place toward the end of the town hall meeting. After a weekend in which the White House scrupulously avoided any indication it preferred the House version of the stimulus to the stingier Senate compromise, Obama let it be known that he’d like to see some of the Senate’s education cuts restored.

Then, at his press conference last night, Obama sounded like a man who was done soliciting ideas and was ready to lay out the stark terms of debate: A vote against for the stimulus is a vote against jobs — in particular, the 4 million the plan would save or create. (He used the word “jobs” 19 times in his 1,000-word preamble.) Once the questioning began, he explicitly announced the end to the bipartisan phase of this operation: “I think that, as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated,” he said. “But understand the bottom line that I’ve got right now, which is what’s happening to the people of Elkhart and what’s happening across the country. I can’t afford to see Congress play the usual political games.”

I’d really love to believe this. Indeed, it sounds really great. Using the pugilism metaphor, Obama took the pounding for a few rounds, but the president was carefully tiring his rival out, putting his opponent right where he wanted the challenger to be. Now Obama’s off the ropes and landing blows. What a comeback! What a great strategy!

Except, I’m not at all convinced this is true. For one thing, it appears Obama took a few rounds of abuse because the White House and the party were caught flat-footed, not because of a deliberate strategy. Indeed, Democratic leaders have conceded they need to “fix” their media strategy.

For another, the president has taken the offensive, and been far more effective of late in defining the terms of the debate, but has the landscape really changed? Democrats still approve of the stimulus plan, Republicans still hate it, and those handful of “centrists” who put together the Senate version have already effectively warned the House, “If you mess with our plan, we’ll walk.”

Maybe I’m underestimating Obama’s strategy and/or momentum; it wouldn’t be the first time. But if this were an actual example of rope-a-dope, a reinvigorated Obama would be calling the shots, a chastened Republican Party would be acquiescing, and Collins, Specter, & Co. would be grudgingly accepting changes to the package that move it closer to the House version.

I wish this were the case, but none of this appears to be happening.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.