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Obama Starts His Second Term By Bringing Tougher Talk

President Obama speaks at the National Defense University in Washington on Monday. Since his re-election four weeks ago, Obama is showing signs of a new, more aggressive leadership style.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama speaks at the National Defense University in Washington on Monday. Since his re-election four weeks ago, Obama is showing signs of a new, more aggressive leadership style.

Throughout his first term, some of President Obama's critics said he wasn't a tough enough negotiator. They felt he caved to Republicans too early, too often. Since his re-election, Obama 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 spent a lot of time in his first term on a fruitless hunt for that common ground. Now he sounds a lot tougher on issues from the "fiscal cliff" of tax increases and spending cuts set for the end of the year, to the possibility of nominating his embattled U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to be the next secretary of state.

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

"If Sen. [John] McCain and Sen. [Lindsey] Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," he said.

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

"It talks about the president's loyalty to people he has lots of confidence in," Duberstein says. "The president knows that, in the second term especially, you have a limited number of chips, and he may want to place them elsewhere."

Obama also has to determine whether Rice would get the votes she needs to be confirmed, and in the Senate that means winning over at least five Republicans. After Rice's visit to Capitol 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, "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," O'Hanlon continues, "she probably will become national security adviser or ambassador to one of our top allies abroad. In other words, she's not going away."

'Campaign' Vs. 'Govern'

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 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 upfront.

This time, Obama is trying a new tack. He opened the fiscal cliff negotiations with a maximalist bid — and a public campaign to voters outside Washington.

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

"The president has decided to continue to campaign rather than govern," he says. "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."

But John Podesta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff during his second term, says campaigning is exactly what the president should be doing — as in explaining himself clearly to the American people.

Making A Clear Case

"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," Podesta says.

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

"He's learned a lesson from the summer of 2011 when backroom 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," Podesta says.

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

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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