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Does Obama Have the Guts to Play Hardball?

So far, Obama's governing style is too nice for real-life politics, where Boy Scouts get their heads handed to them.

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For the first time in his life, those qualities seem to have failed him. Indeed, he may have been misled by his high regard for his own talents. This is really his first encounter with devastating political defeat. The question now is, What will he learn from his "shellacking"? Possibly not much, since it is always very hard to rethink and adjust in midstream. But remember, this man is an unusually observant politician with a great thirst for self-reflection. One can reasonably hope that as he absorbs the hard knocks, he will make calculated changes in how he governs.

Bluntly put, Obama needs to learn hardball. People saw this in him when he fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and many of us yearn to see more. If he absorbs the lesson of power, he will accept that sometimes in politics you can't split the difference or round off sharp edges. He has to push back aggressively and stand his ground, more like those ruthless opponents trying to bury him. If Congress won't act, the president will. But first he has to switch from cheerleading to honest talk. Tell people what the nation really needs, what Republicans intend to sabotage. In a political street fight, you've got to hit back.

Only Obama can decide this about himself, but others can influence the outcome by surrounding him with tough love and new circumstances created by their own direct actions. It does not help Obama to keep telling him he did great but the people misunderstood him. He did lousy, not great, and in many governing dimensions people understood his failures clearly enough. They knew he gave tons of money to bankers and demanded nothing in return. They knew he thought the economy was in recovery. They couldn't believe this intelligent man was that clueless.

Popular forces can blow away the fuzziness. They can mobilize to demonstrate visible support for the president's loftier goals and to warn him off the temptation to pursue a Clintonesque appeasement of the right. Given the fragile status of his presidency, Obama needs to know that caving in is sure to encourage enemies and drive off disheartened supporters. People should, likewise, call out the president's enemies and attack them with the harshness that's out of character for him. The racial McCarthyism of the GOP establishment is a good place to start.

People who still have great hope for Obama can help revive his presidency, but only if they toughen up themselves. Stop holding his hand (he's an adult) and start building a people's agenda that compels the president to change his. Obama won't like this at first -- his own supporters talking back -- but he can learn to draw strength from their courage. If people fail to step up with their own message, the president will likely fail with his.

William Greider is the author of, most recently, " Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (Rodale Books, 2009)."

 
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