From coaxing to cudgeling

The New York Times noted yesterday that the White House still has a lengthy list of economic measures it wants Congress to approve, but President Obama’s strategy “no longer turns on coaxing Republican leaders.” He will instead focus on “his ability to leverage public opinion.”

In theory, this certainly sounds encouraging. When it comes to persuading GOP lawmakers to do the right thing, no one seems to have any influence. It’s tempting to think Ronald Reagan could deliver a message to congressional Republicans from The Great Beyond, and maybe that would get their attention, but we already know that’s not true — Democrats touted Reagan’s line on the debt ceiling and the GOP couldn’t care less.

Which means Obama and his team are left with no other choice: it’s time to reach out to the electorate. This includes, as we saw over the weekend, the president pushing voters to lobby Congress, and as E.J. Dionne Jr. noted today, it also means a president rediscovering his fighting spirit, now that the threat of default is off the table for a while.

[N]o sane human being (and sanity is still an Obama hallmark) can pretend anymore that today’s Republicans remain the party of Bob Dole or Howard Baker…. Obama knows he’s reaching the end of the line on negotiating. Now he has to win. This brings out his competitive side. The rules of an election are similar to those of the sporting contests Obama so enjoys. Candidates are expected to be tough, to go after their opponents, to push and shove and throw them off balance. If you doubt Obama can do this, ask Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

The president’s speech last Thursday in Holland, Mich., was the first sign that the competitive Obama is reemerging. His target, like Harry Truman’s in 1948, was an obstructionist Republican Congress. He condemned “the refusal of some folks in Congress to put the country ahead of party” and urged that it “start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now.”

With Obama, there is always the danger of a relapse into the passive, we’re-all-reasonable-people style. The fighting Obama has briefly appeared before, only to go back into hibernation. This time, the evidence suggests he’ll stick with it — and, in truth, he has no other choice.

This all sounds pretty heartening to me, at least insofar as we’re likely to see a feisty president ready to take his case to the public and the fight to his rivals. This strikes me as a very good idea.

What I’m less sure about is what, precisely, this will mean in policy terms. The economy still stinks, the public is still feeling a lot of anxiety, Congress is still dysfunctional, and Republicans are still being ridiculous. It’d be nice if millions of engaged citizens started demanding the GOP start taking governing seriously, but Republicans are well aware of their deteriorating public support and don’t seem to care.

My point is, I’d welcome a fired-up president ready to throw a few punches. But then what? What happens after he smacks Republicans around for a while and they still won’t extend the payroll tax cut, won’t extend unemployment benefits, won’t invest in infrastructure, and generally won’t lift a finger to improve the economy at all?