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US POLITICS

Scarred but still confident

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The US President might seem more hardened but he seems to have figured out the way to wield power in an age of political polarisation and economic stagnation.

He warned them in 2008, and when he formally opened his re-election campaign in May, he put it in his speech again. He will "never be a perfect president, " he said, a line he now repeats at stop after stop. The unspoken subtext: It's not my fault if you didn't listen or expected too much.

This is not a perfect president;this is a proud yet humbled president, a confident yet scarred president, a dreamer mugged by reality, a pragmatist confounded by ideology, a radical to some, a sellout to others.
This is a president who has yet to realise the lofty expectations that propelled him from obscurity to the Oval Office, whose idealism or na?vetê or hubris has been tempered by four years in the fires. Long after the messiah jokes vanished, the oh-so-mortal Barack Hussein Obama is left to make the case that while progress is slow, he is taking America to a better place - and that he will be a better president over the next four years.

Although "he certainly seems more grizzled or hardened, " as his former economics adviser Austan Goolsbee observed, Obama expresses confidence that he has figured out how to wield power in an age of political polarisation and economic stagnation.

Obama, the 51-year-old Harvard law graduate, sees himself as a rational thinker and came to office with what might be called the Reasonable Person Theory of Government. But politics is often not rational, at least not as Obama defined it. After a year of failed Middle East peacemaking, he conceded being too confident that he could cajole Israelis and Palestinians into resolving age-old disputes. "We overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that, " he concluded at the time.

Obama keeps a list and argues that he has fulfilled most of his core promises. He pulled the country back from the economic abyss, rescued the auto industry, killed the world's top terrorist, withdrew troops from Iraq, imposed regulations on Wall Street, put two liberal justices on the Supreme Court, signed a nuclear treaty with Russia and cut taxes for the middle class.

His contemplative decision-making can be isolating. He does not readily let others in. "It's hard to gain the president's confidence - not trust, but confidence in your judgment, " Vice President Joseph R Biden Jr observed in an interview this summer. "It doesn't come easily to this president. " As a result, he said, Obama demands a rigorous process. When someone proposes something, the president's reaction is, "Get me a paper on that. " When he receives it, Biden said, "he devours it. He masters it. "

His deliberation proved refreshing to those weary of President George W Bush's swagger. "I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak, " Obama once said when asked why it took him days to respond to a controversy.

But when he waited to speak out about the would-be underwear bomber at Christmas 2009 or the BP oil spill in 2010, he paid a political price. He learned the public wants to see its president during crises. So when a gunman shot up a movie theater in Colorado this summer, Obama appeared before cameras within hours.

Obama is a curious mixture of bold and cautious. He spent months in what amounted to a grueling graduate seminar on Afghanistan and then disregarded his vice president and top advisers to order 30, 000 more troops to the war zone. Even the action considered his most decisive, ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, took place only after months of secretly monitoring intelligence and considering options.
He defied advisers by pressing for his expansive health care program rather than settling for a "skinny" alternative. Yet he stays doggedly away from hotbutton issues like gun control and race, took two years to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and took even longer to endorse same-sex marriage. He appointed a bipartisan commission to fix the nation's finances, then shelved its plan.

On foreign policy as well, he has his priorities, and those that do not fit are put to the side. Since pulling American forces out of Iraq, for example, he has seemed removed from its fate. Adm. Dennis C Blair, Obama's director of national intelligence until he was pushed out over policy and personality differences, said the president took a checklistapproach to foreign policy overly influenced by domestic politics.
"There quickly developed what I thought of as the top-10 list of individual issues that needed to be worked - Iran, a treaty with Russia, the South China Sea, the Middle East peace process, " he said. "Never did there seem to be an idea of a strategy - where do we want to be, what's important, and how do we get there?"

The isolation can be palpable. Riding in his motorcade after an event, Obama sometimes stares out the windows at the world he cannot really touch. When he arrives at a hotel at the end of a campaign day, he confers with aides in his suite, then sometimes asks what they plan to do the rest of the evening. When they mention going to the hotel bar to unwind, he notes he is not free to follow, essentially confined in his suite until morning.

But his inner circle is the same tight group it was before. It is probably fair to say he has made no new friends since moving to Washington. "The times he wants downtime or personal time, he seems to naturally gravitate to the people he's known for a very long time, " said John W Rogers Jr, an old friend.

In private, he speaks of his challenger with disdain. While intellectually understanding the odds, aides say, the president finds it hard to conceive of losing to Romney, a rival he does not consider a serious thinker who knows what he wants to do with the country. The president has told people he is determined to win because he believes the economy will bounce back and does not want Romney getting credit.
Obama has convinced himself, or so he says, that things will be different next time around. Should he win, maybe Republicans will finally cooperate. If that sounds like optimism overcoming experience, Obama promises to be on guard. "I'm not going to just play it safe, " he tells aides. But he intends to play by the lessons he has learned.

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