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What's a President To Do?

As President Obama struggles though a host of problems, from the Gulf oil spill to the refusal of the Senate to support a new jobs bill or a cap-and-trade system, you can hear Republicans repeating a strange refrain that first became prominent in their rhetoric during the health reform fight: this president is arrogant and perhaps even tyrannical for trying to enact the policy agenda that he campaigned on in 2008 in the teeth of Republican and (in some cases) popular opposition.

Jay Cost of RealClearPolitics has been particularly insistent on this line of argument, with "bully" being the latest unlikely epithet employed to attack this embattled president:

For somebody who seems detached from the details of policy and largely uninterested in legislative wrangling, Barack Obama sure does come across sometimes like a political bully. But this is not bullying some obstinate backbench legislator. Instead, this is bullying the American people. With health care reform, he basically told the country that he didn't care what it thought. The fact that people opposed the bill was proof they didn't know what they were talking about. Now, apparently, the evolving strategy on energy is the same. Don't like cap-and-trade? That's your problem, not his. Plan to vote out Democrats in favor of the idea? Like he cares. He'll pass it anyway....

Instead of passing unpopular bills through questionable methods over the opposition of the people, maybe the President should get behind proposals that can actually sustain popular support.

Okay, fine, let's say that Obama should ignore the fact that he was elected on a platform to do all these outrageous things that Jay Cost objects to, and go with the polls which make 2010 "likely voters" the arbiters of what he should do right now. What are those "proposals" the president should "get behind" that "can actually sustain popular support?"

Should he, as he has often been urged by Republicans, forget about "irrelevant" issues like health care costs or climate change and focus strictly on the economy? Let's say he should; what, specifically, can he do that Republicans in Congress won't fight tooth and nail? Best I can tell, the GOP's "strategy" for improving the economy is to slash upper-end taxes while eliminating deficits and debts. This cannot, unfortunately, be done without radical reductions in defense spending Republicans do not, by and large, support, or alternatively, big changes in Social Security and Medicare that the public is certain to reject by much bigger margins than health reform or cap-and-trade.

The dirty little secret of Washington right now is that the policies Republicans would follow if they were running things are considerably less popular than those being promoted by Democrats, and as the events of the last year have graphically demonstrated, there is no "half-loaf" compromise approach on major issues that Obama can take that Republicans will accept. So Obama can do what he's doing, or do nothing. If he's a "bully" for rejecting complete inaction, then bully for him.