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updated: 2/24/2011 4:57 PM

Obama just can't take the heat

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When it comes to serving as leader of the free world, "confident" and "resolute" always look better on your resume than "insecure" and "self-absorbed."

Would someone please explain this to President Obama? After nearly two years in office, he still hasn't figured out that the job isn't all about him. Why else would Obama continue to be so thin-skinned and find it so difficult to take criticism?

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In one of the biggest contradictions of his presidency, Obama obviously doesn't care what we think of him - except when it's obvious he does.

In his first year in office, Obama sprinted from one major policy item to another. Whether the issue was race relations, immigration, climate change or education reform, Obama didn't seem to care much about whether his initiatives, plans and goals were popular with the mainstream. All that mattered was that he believed his path was the correct one.

It was a point that Obama emphasized during his Labor Day remarks in Milwaukee, telling supporters that he has been challenging "some powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time." And while, Obama said, these interests are not happy with, for instance, his efforts to achieve financial reform, "it was the right thing to do."

A few days later in Cleveland, Obama hit that note again.

"I am keenly aware that not all of our policies have been popular," he said. "So no, our job is not easy. But you didn't elect me to do what was easy. You didn't elect me to just read the polls and figure out how to keep myself in office."

One thing that certainly wasn't easy was the contentious debate over health care reform. Piles of polling data showed that as many as two-thirds of the American people were wary of making radical and transformative changes to the nation's health care system. They obviously didn't want to buy what Obama and congressional Democrats were selling. And yet, rather than discourage the president, this negative reaction only seemed to inspire him to go out and pitch the product even harder.

The indifference to poll data drove Obama's critics up the wall, and they would claim the government wasn't responsive to their concerns or representative of their views.

To be honest, this part of the story didn't bother me. Good presidents listen to their constituents and can tell you exactly where they are. Great presidents lead their constituents to places they might not want to go. It was refreshing to see Obama stake out positions and defend them, even if they weren't popular. After all, do we really need more politicians telling people what they want to hear just to get re-elected?

But what is troubling is that Obama, once he decides to stake out an unpopular position, can't seem to take the heat. Every few months or so, he'll make some crack about how he's being mistreated and unappreciated.

And that's what happened in Milwaukee when Obama was discussing those "powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time." Not only do these political foes not give our president the proper respect but, in fact, he said, "they talk about me like a dog."

That quote - which seemed oddly out of place in Obama's remarks on labor and the economy - sounded to some reporters like a line from a Jimi Hendrix song, "Stone Free." The lyrics go: "They talk about me like a dog/Talkin' about the clothes I wear/But they don't realize they're the ones who's square."

The White House hasn't said if Hendrix was the inspiration for the dog talk. Regardless, Obama's message seemed to be: He's the cool dude and his critics are squaresville. It's as if he believes that he alone understands some great truth about America, and that the rest of us are still in the dark.

What if Obama has that backward? One thing is for sure: This victim rap is certainly not cool. It's admirable that Obama shrugs off polls and does what he thinks is right even if it costs him politically. But then why complain about the cost in ways that make you look like the injured party?

Leadership isn't just about standing up for principle. It's also being able to stand up to criticism. Twenty months into the job, Obama is still much better at one than the other.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

© 2010, The Washington Post Writers Group

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