President Obama can't seem to make up his mind whether he wants to work with Republicans or fight with them. One minute, he wants compromise. The next, he forces confrontation.
Well, Obama had better pick one of these two choices and stick with it. Or if he's not careful, he's going to succeed in alienating the left, right and center. And this will ensure that the next two years produce no significant accomplishments, and that his first term could be his last.
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Maybe it's because Obama pretends to be something he isn't. Or maybe it's because he is too easily manipulated by the members of his own party who put partisanship before the best interests of the country.
Whatever the reason, it's becoming apparent that Obama's ability to compromise is being undermined by his appetite for conflict -- and that, ironically, the feisty rhetoric that creates the conflict makes compromise all the more necessary.
Obama was on the right track when he took on liberal extremists in his own party and worked out an $858 billion compromise with Republicans. The deal extends Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for providing 13 additional months of unemployment benefits, an extension of middle-class tax breaks that cover school tuition and other items, and a reduction of the payroll tax for working Americans.
Polls showed that most Americans liked the give-and-take of the compromise, and that they want Congress and the White House to do more of this sort of thing on other issues.
But many Democrats struck back and accused Obama of giving up too much and selling out his principles. Liberal commentators denounced him as a failure and a disappointment, and even suggested that someone from the left should run against him in the 2012 Democratic primaries.
So what did Obama do? Did he stand his ground and try to make the argument to those in his own party that compromises like these are necessary to govern effectively? Not a chance. Obama is so sensitive to bad reviews from his own camp that he immediately tacked to the left and tried to pick a fight with the same Republicans with which he had just struck a deal.
During a recent conference call with political supporters, Obama repeatedly promised to butt heads with the GOP next month when Republicans take over the House and increase their numbers in the Senate. And what is even more bizarre is that Obama seems to think the battleground ought to be the same compromise he just worked out with the other side.
"We are going to go right back at Republicans in showing why the things that they wanted in this compromise don't make sense," Obama insisted.
At the top of the list is a two-year extension of Bush-era tax cuts for individuals who make more than $200,000 and couples who make more than $250,000 annually.
So if this is such a bad deal, why did Obama go along with it? And why was he trying to sell it to the country -- at least until some of his fellow Democrats shoved him back in line?
"I will be happy to see the Republicans test whether or not I'm itching for a fight on a whole range of issues," Obama said with bravado. "I suspect they will find I am."
So the president is, in his own words, "itching" for a fight?
Fine. In that case, Obama ought to roll up his sleeves and fight for the spirit of cooperation he seemed to be embracing not long ago. He ought to fight members of his own party, and try to get them to see that Washington is no place for ideological purity and that Americans want compromise. He ought to fight for common sense and against the kind of rabid partisanship that always undermines the search for solutions. And, most of all, he ought to fight for the freedom to be his own person and not someone who is always being coaxed and coerced by his party into taking positions that harm his presidency and the country.
If Obama is really itching for a fight, there are plenty of battles out there. He just needs to choose them more carefully.
• Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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