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With Leadership Questioned, Obama Gets In The Fray

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With Leadership Questioned, Obama Gets In The Fray

With Leadership Questioned, Obama Gets In The Fray

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LYNN NEARY, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

The deficit reduction and jobs plan that president Obama laid out yesterday is part policy, part politics. On paper, it simply outlines how the Congressional supercommittee could find $4 trillion in savings. But the plan is also intended to give a weakened president better prospects for re-election next year.

Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: There's been a sea change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It's almost as if the cerebral, detached president went into a phone booth and came out a fighting Democrat.

In the Rose Garden yesterday, Mr. Obama was no longer above the fray, he was right in the fray. And he made it clear he's given up on his so far fruitless search for common ground with the Republicans. And he did something he's never done before when sending a proposal to Congress - he made a veto threat upfront.

President BARACK OBAMA: And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share.

LIASSON: The president planted a flag with a quid pro quo: no structural changes in Medicare unless Republicans agree to additional revenues. But House Speaker John Boehner ruled out any increase at all in tax revenues, so that leaves the chances for a grand bargain from the deficit supercommittee around zilch.

But, says Democratic strategist Geoff Garin, cutting the deficit was only one of the president's goals.

GEOFF GARIN: The presidency is a leadership position. It is fine to be a conciliator, but at the end of the day, the threshold quality that people associate with president is leader. And that's what Barack Obama, I think, is in the process of re-establishing for people.

LIASSON: Re-establishing, Garin says, because it's a threshold attribute that independent voters and even Democrats had begun to doubt.

GARIN: What the American people had started to question is whether Barack Obama had the courage of the conviction to lay out a course and stick with it.

LIASSON: Garin says the president's recent combative speeches have helped.

Jim Kessler, of the centrist think tank Third Way, points to something else. When he polled swing voters, Kessler found what White House aides will often point out: That the president is still personally popular.

JIM KESSLER: They're open to this guy. They still like him and they mostly want him to succeed. There's still a fondness for him.

LIASSON: That may be true, but Republicans have been quick to turn this bright spot for Obama into a backhanded compliment that underscores their main argument. Here's Mitt Romney in a GOP debate earlier this month.

MITT ROMNEY: This president is a nice guy. He doesn't have a clue how to get this country working again. And - and...


LIASSON: A new book released just today by journalist Ron Suskind about the Obama White House underscores that in-over-his-head narrative. And in Jim Kessler's polling, one of the words most often volunteered by swing voters to describe the president was ineffective. And that raises the question - with no ability to get a divided Congress to pass his agenda, how can the President Obama convince voters he is an effective leader?

Jim Kessler.

KESSLER: You know, of course you want to see the economy improve and you'd like to see a deficit package come through. But they have to come up with a formulation that says, well, if the economy is still sputtering along and Congress isn't able to pass anything, let us at least show strength.

LIASSON: According to most forecasters, the economy probably will still be sputtering along next year. Political analyst Stu Rothenberg says Mr. Obama is running for a second term in one of the worst environments for an incumbent.

Dr. STU ROTHENBERG: He cannot allow the 2012 election to be a referendum on the state of the country, the state of the economy. He's got to make it a choice between his vision, what he hopes to accomplish, what he thinks he's started to accomplish and where the Republicans want to take the country. That is the only way he can be re-elected.

LIASSON: Barack Obama made history once. To get a second term, he'll have to make history again. Consumer confidence about the future is at its lowest level since 1980 and 1992. And those were both years when incumbent presidents were defeated.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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