As President Barack Obama nears the end of his first term, has he finally found an inner LBJ to channel?
His recent words and actions suggest he has turned a corner from his earlier wishful thinking about playing nice with obstruction-minded Republicans in Congress. Now, to get his way, he needs to apply the Lyndon Johnson weapon of the iron fist in the velvet glove.
Mr. Obama is not characteristically equipped as Johnson was to mesh the techniques of bullying and schmoozing to break resistance to his demands. However, he seems to have come to the realization that he has to play the cards dealt him with more resolution and conviction than he did in his first term.
Some strong cards came to him in his surprisingly strong re-election. They included a forceful personal recovery after his stumble in his first debate with Mitt Romney and a huge surge of support on Election Day from the minority racial and ethnic communities, as well as from women. Now they have considerably bolstered his negotiating position.
With Mr. Romney effectively banished to political irrelevance, the president now has the relative luxury of doing battle with a GOP congressional leadership that is in even less favor with the public. The latest Pew Research Center poll says voters will blame the Republicans on Capitol Hill more than they will Mr. Obama, by a 2-1 ratio, if the economy goes over the fiscal cliff because the debt-reduction crisis is not resolved by year's end.
Rather than going hat in hand to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as he did through most of his first term, the president has opened the negotiations with a bid reflecting his new political strength. As promised in the campaign, he is barnstorming for an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest.
At the same time, last week he sent his chief spokesman in the fiscal battle, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, to sell his case on five separate appearances on the Sunday television talk shows. On CNBC, asked whether the administration was "prepared to go over the fiscal cliff" if the Republicans didn't agree to end the Bush cuts for the richest taxpayers, Mr. Geithner replied: "Oh, absolutely. There's no prospect of an agreement that doesn't involve the rates going up on the top 2 percent of the wealthiest."
Mr. Obama himself followed up by making the argument individually to leading members of the business community and to the influential Business Roundtable. He added that he did not intend to go through a repetition of the earlier debilitating fight with the congressional Republicans over raising the national debt ceiling. "We cannot afford to go there again," he said. "I will not play that game."
The New York Times, quoting some business leaders, indicated that Mr. Boehner was losing political leverage in defending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, but the speaker nevertheless has indicated that he intends to hold the line on maintaining them and on the question of raising the debt limit.
Mr. Obama must consider how his tougher stance, heartening as it is to his party's core liberals, will affect the prospects for the rest of his agenda with the House of Representatives still controlled by the Republicans. The president's first-term resilience got him nowhere, so if he has an inner LBJ, now is the time for him to assert it by taking a stand and holding to it.
Through his first term, Mr. Obama was the captive of the Great Recession he inherited in 2009. With signs of only mild recovery under way, he still needs the cooperation of House Republicans to solve the nation's unemployment and other associated problems.
A second-term president always has his eye on the ticking clock. Beyond enacting his milestone health-care plan, Mr. Obama must tackle other delayed initiatives on which his legacy will be judged, such as immigration reform. He only has so much more time to affect how history will appraise his achievements.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.