by Jules Witcover

All the theatrics leading up to President Obama's speech to Congress on job creation have raised the bar on the central political question: Is he tough enough to do the job for which he was elected?

The president's acquiescence to House Speaker John Boehner's blunt rejection of his request to address the House chamber on a specific night, and his agreement to give the speech a night later, has made him look weak once again.

It all seemed like a rerun of the earlier debt ceiling crisis, when Boehner stared and Obama blinked. In that impasse, more was made of the High Noon scenario than of the deal subsequently struck. The president got some minor concessions but surrendered on making millionaires and billionaires give up their Bush tax cuts.

This time around, Obama put off his prescription for the nation's top domestic problem until Congress returned from its summer recess, while he took his own vacation on Martha's Vineyard. In so doing, he set the stage for another humiliation; the Republicans are poised to administer a second dose of it Thursday night before a national television audience.

If the past is prologue, they will sit on their hands as he outlines a plan to put the country back to work, perhaps through a more ambitious infrastructure rebuilding program, coupled with tax and other incentives for the construction and supporting industries to resume hiring.

But if White House strategists are counting on winning this round by shaming the solid obstructionist core in the Republican side of the aisle, they very likely are deluding themselves. The conservative naysayers will continue to reject any increased government spending and seem quite content that most of Americans are now on their side -- and not just the tea-party advocates increasingly calling the shots for the congressional GOP.

So, in addressing the House chamber Thursday night, Obama must be aware of the den he has entered. Republican silence to his pleas will be as eloquent to many television viewers at home as the loyal cheering and applauding by Democrats on their side of the aisle.

Even there, if the president steps back from the sharply critical rhetoric he aimed at Republican obstruction on his Midwest bus tour and preaches conciliation again, he will only reinforce the image of softness that so chagrins his own party's liberals.

Pleading once more for cooperation from the opposition on another significant infusion of federal money to put America's unemployed to work will invite the customary denigration of "wasteful stimulus." But leading economists concede that's the medicine required now from Dr. Obama.

The confrontation can take place now or in next year's presidential campaign, and Obama might as well face it squarely now. If Obama casts the debate in terms of mushrooming income inequality and inequity, conservatives no doubt will cry "class warfare." But which side is making war on the other these days?

The Republicans clearly are confident that they have been winning the argument by demonizing not only the social safety net but also Obama himself. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has blatantly declared that the prime political goal is to make the Democratic incumbent a one-term president, and that remains the GOP's marching song.

Obama's challenge is to lay out a truly bold action program to find or create jobs to put the millions of unemployed back to work. And politically he must more effectively cast the obstructionist opposition, driven by conservative reliance on the uncooperative private enterprise sector, as the villain in the piece.

In other words, it's time for the president to show the way, and let the political chips fall where they may. His problem now is not merely the naysayers; he needs to re-energize the confidence and the passion of the Democrats and independents who responded to his 2008 assurance that "Yes, we can" solve the nation's problems.

At that time, he probably didn't anticipate a Republican echo chamber of "No, you can't." But that's the reality, and he may as well face it head-on now. Harry Truman showed the way in 1948 by pinning his woes on a "do-nothing Congress" and winning an upset re-election. Barack Obama seems to have little choice but to try the same, and the sooner the better.


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