- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2010

President Obama has been doing a lot of ex- plaining lately. He spoke for an hour-and-a-half during his State of the Union address. The next day he fielded questions for an hour or so from House Republicans.

His talk was sometimes persuasive (notably during the Republican encounter) and other times it was confusing (especially during the State of the Union). But talk was all it was. Pretty soon, Mr. Obama is going to have to deliver more than words.

A majority of Americans have come to doubt Mr. Obama’s leadership not because he isn’t overflowing with ideas or lacks for charm. They are increasingly skeptical of his performance because he has yet to follow through on some of his most basic promises.

He promised change and has delivered more of the same: special interest deals cut behind closed doors and partisanship that continues to bring Washington to a standstill.

He also failed to listen to the average citizens whose cause he said he would champion. He persisted in pressing for health reform even though every public survey showed that most voters wanted job creation instead.

And even though he could hardly be blamed, he has had to accept the backlash from attempting to stimulate economic growth - with massive federal programs - only to see unemployment plateau at a gut-wrenching 10 percent.

Voters rebelled against his fellow Democrats as a result, choosing Republicans for high office in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts. These elections amounted to a cry for help from the American people that demonstrated widespread disappointment for a presidency that began, literally, with great promise but has not followed through.

The State of the Union was Mr. Obama’s first major opportunity to reverse these shortcomings. Instead, he decided to say everything and its opposite.

He lectured Republicans but also asked for their cooperation. He bashed businesses such as banks and oil companies, but held out the possibility of expanded federal assistance for each of them. He called for both reductions in the federal budget deficit and tax cuts and spending increases that would widen the gap.

Most of all, he portrayed himself as the populist outsider even though he is the government’s most powerful insider.

He could afford to play such rhetorical games if his job were only to make speeches. After all, what politician doesn’t say one thing and do another?

But he is not just any politician. He is the president. And if he really wants to be a leader for change, he will have to change some things - and for the better.

At the moment, he isn’t on track to do anything of the kind. Health reform is dead, even though Democratic leaders won’t admit it. For it to be revived, Democrats would have to accept policies that are anathema to them, including a crackdown on malpractice lawsuits that would hurt plaintiff’s attorneys, a fundamental Democratic constituency.

Mr. Obama asserts that he is dedicated to reining in the deficit and this week unveiled an ambitious plan that would freeze or cut a wide swath of programs. But not many experts are betting that his wish list will be adopted.

As the cliche goes, the president proposes and the Congress disposes. And dispose is what Congress is likely to do with a lot of what the president wants.

Lawmakers, not the president, control the national purse strings and they will not be eager to promote austerity during a year whose most prominent features are economic hardship and an election in November.

Other initiatives also face an uphill climb. Immigration reform, financial regulation and climate change legislation will all be worked on to varying degrees in the coming months. But the compromises needed to get them over the finish line will have to be worked out with Republicans and not just among Democrats - a three-dimensional chess game that will have to be played on what has so far been a dysfunctional checker board.

Mr. Obama’s gentlemanly encounter with House Republicans in Baltimore last week shows that a serious dialogue can take place between the warring sides. But it was also clear that the relationship is still in its infancy.

The talk will have to turn into negotiations and, eventually, compromise. It remains an open question whether the president is willing to tack to the right and, if he does, whether enough Democrats will follow him there.

That process will take months if it begins at all. But Mr. Obama will have to begin to put his words into action if he is going to win back the trust of the Americans who sent him to Washington.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is president of BGR Public Relations, a Washington Times columnist and a Fox News contributor. His firm’s clients include financial institutions and energy companies.

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