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Deconstructing the President

I am not much for putting U.S. presidents on the couch, but there was something about watching Barack Obama striding into the White House briefing room with fists clenched the other day that appealed to the Sigmund Freud in me.

Why, his many critics asked, did he call that news conference at all? Why, some of us puzzled, did the White House start throwing elbows on the tax issue only when the cuts were weeks away from expiring? (Then again, how did the leader of the free world allow himself to get elbowed in the lip at a holiday basketball game? Never mind.)

The answer to all these questions may be found in the nature of the criticism that has been flung the president’s way in the last several weeks.

  • He has been accused of caving in to the Russian bear on nuclear security on behalf of a START treaty the Senate is taking its sweet time ratifying.

  • He has been chastised by Republican leaders for ruining the economy by promising to end tax cuts for the wealthy.

  • He has been boxed about the ears by liberal Democrats for cutting a deal with said Republicans over said tax cuts.

In every instance, the critique has boiled down to one general accusation: Barack Obama is weak.

This is the sort of thing that seems to gets under the skin of presidents and soon-to-be presidents like no other. Vice President George H.W. Bush was furious when a 1987 Newsweek cover pictured him on a speed boat with the headline “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor,'” just as he launched his campaign for the White House. President Clinton also railed against the perception of powerlessness when he declared five months after his own 1994 midterm shellacking that “the president is still relevant here.” And Jimmy Carter, now out promoting a book-length diary of his own mid-1970s presidency, is still re-litigating history.

So when the president summoned the press to the White House on Tuesday, he came out swinging.

During little more than 30 minutes in the Brady Press Briefing Room, he suggested that failing to negotiate a deal with Congressional Republicans would, in essence, let the terrorists win. He trashed liberal Democrats who, in insisting that he’d caved in to Republican demands, were making perfect-the-enemy-of-the-good. And he took a couple of targeted swipes at the news media too, which, he said, highlighted his failure to negotiate a South Korea trade deal a couple of weeks ago, but then played it down when a deal did finally come together.

It was an arresting sight. Mr. Cool – the cerebral chief executive who hews to teleprompter for formal speeches and uses elliptical, explanatory prose even when off the cuff – had become The Hulk. He used the word “fight” 16-times and the word “battle” seven times.

Within 24 hours of this combative press conference the White House filled reporters’ inboxes with dozens of statements of support from elected officials ranging from the Republican Mayor of Oklahoma City to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Challenging reporters to tell the story his way, the president enlisted his departing economic adviser Larry Summers to issue dire warnings about the prospects of a double dip recession, and tried to muscle reluctant Democrats into going along. As of this writing, it hasn’t worked.

But history tells us that could change. The brilliant PBS NewsHour Political Editor David Chalian points out that 57 House Democrats also signed a letter vowing to vote against health care if the public option was not included. The bill still passed, and with mostly Democratic support.

Plus, there is this lingering question: if taxes are allowed to go up even if Republicans are willing to cut a deal with the president to keep them down, who wins that fight? Who’s a wimp then?

This post was updated on Dec. 13, 2010.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted from the Washington Week web site. Follow Gwen Ifill on Twitter.

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