Obama Starts His Second Term By Bringing Tougher Talk : It's All Politics In his first term, President Obama was criticized as caving to Republicans too early, too often. Since his re-election, he has subtly changed his approach. He's bringing a more aggressive style — but some critics say it's not the best way to find common ground.

Obama Starts His Second Term By Bringing Tougher Talk

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Throughout his first term, President Obama faced critics who said he wasn't a tough enough negotiator. They felt he caved to Republicans too early and too often.

MONTAGNE: In the days since his reelection, there are signs of subtle changes in the president's approach. He's bringing a more aggressive style that some critics say is not the best way to find common ground.

GREENE: In a moment we'll hear more about the latest proposal to resolve the fiscal standoff in Washington, but first to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and the president's new tack.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama spent a lot of time in his first term on a fruitless hunt for common ground. Now he sounds a lot tougher on issues from the fiscal cliff to the possibility of nominating his embattled U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to be the next secretary of State.

In his last news conference, he defended Rice with a challenge to her biggest critics in Congress, calling the attacks on her outrageous.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me.

LIASSON: That spirited defense of Rice reveals a lot about the president, says Ken Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff in President Reagan's second term.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: It talks about the president's loyalty to people he has lots of confidence in. But presidents don't often do Don Quixote missions. The president knows that in a second term especially you have a limited number of chips, and he may want to place them elsewhere.

LIASSON: He also has to determine if Rice would get the votes she needs to be confirmed, and in the Senate that means winning over at least five Republicans. After her visit to the Hill last week, it's not clear if those votes are there.

Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon says although the president would have a setback in the short run if he ended up nominating someone other than Rice...

MICHAEL O'HANLON: On the other hand, what seems like a big hot debate within Washington can be pretty quickly forgotten. The bottom line here is that if Susan Rice doesn't become secretary of State, she probably will become national security adviser or ambassador to one of our top allies abroad. In other words, she's not going away.

LIASSON: The stakes in the Susan Rice standoff are relatively small, but they are very large in the bigger tug of war between the president and the Republicans over the fiscal cliff. Get those negotiations wrong and the economy could be hurt, along with the president's ability to work with Congress on anything else. So Mr. Obama is trying out a new negotiating approach.

Back during the debates on the stimulus, health care and the debt ceiling, he tried to find common ground by making concessions to the Republicans up front. This time Mr. Obama opened the fiscal cliff negotiations with a maximalist bid and a public campaign to voters outside Washington.

Ken Duberstein echoes the complaints of many Republicans who think this isn't the way to get a deal.

DUBERSTEIN: The president has decided to continue to campaign rather than govern. You know, when you campaign, you demonize your opponent. That seems to still be happening. And if you're looking for votes and an agreement across the aisle, sometimes you have to be willing to swallow a little to get a lot.

LIASSON: But John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff in his second term, thinks campaigning is exactly what the president should be doing - campaigning as in explaining himself clearly to the American people.

JOHN PODESTA: What I think the White House suffered from in the summer of 2011 was the public couldn't exactly figure out what was really on the table and why it was there.

LIASSON: But unlike the talks over the debt ceiling last summer, now in the fiscal cliff negotiations Podesta says Mr. Obama is making his case clear in public and in private.

PODESTA: Well, I think he's learned a lesson from the summer of 2011, when back room deal-making didn't work for him. And I think he comes into the negotiation with strength, and he's going to press what he said he would do in the campaign and what he promised the American people, which is a balanced approach with revenue coming from the top end of the income structure.

LIASSON: It's not clear yet whether the president's new style will work in the end. But yesterday it seemed to have forced the Republicans to do one thing Mr. Obama wanted: put a proposal on the table. It's far away from the president's bid, but it's a start.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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