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Sat Jan 19, 2013, 09:52 AM

Go for the Throat!


Go for the Throat!
Why if he wants to transform American politics, Obama must declare war on the Republican Party.

By John Dickerson|Posted Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, at 6:13 PM ET

President Obama, left, and Vice President Biden announce the administration's new gun law proposals on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

On Monday, President Obama will preside over the grand reopening of his administration. It would be altogether fitting if he stepped to the microphone, looked down the mall, and let out a sigh: so many people expecting so much from a government that appears capable of so little. A second inaugural suggests new beginnings, but this one is being bookended by dead-end debates. Gridlock over the fiscal cliff preceded it and gridlock over the debt limit, sequester, and budget will follow. After the election, the same people are in power in all the branches of government and they don't get along. There's no indication that the president's clashes with House Republicans will end soon.


The challenge for President Obamaís speech is the challenge of his second term: how to be great when the environment stinks. Enhancing the presidentís legacy requires something more than simply the clever application of predictable stratagems. Washingtonís partisan rancor, the size of the problems facing government, and the limited amount of time before Obama is a lame duck all point to a single conclusion: The president who came into office speaking in lofty terms about bipartisanship and cooperation can only cement his legacy if he destroys the GOP. If he wants to transform American politics, he must go for the throat.


This approach is not a path of gentle engagement. It requires confrontation and bright lines and tactics that are more aggressive than the president demonstrated in the first term. He can't turn into a snarling hack. The posture is probably one similar to his official second-term photograph: smiling, but with arms crossed.

The president already appears to be headed down this path. He has admitted heís not going to spend much time improving his schmoozing skills; he's going to get outside of Washington to ratchet up public pressure on Republicans. He is transforming his successful political operation into a governing operation. It will have his legacy and agenda in mindóand it wonít be affiliated with the Democratic National Committee, so it will be able to accept essentially unlimited donations. The president tried to use his political arm this way after the 2008 election, but he was constrained by re-election and his early promises of bipartisanship. No more. Those days are done.

Presidents donít usually sow discord in their inaugural addresses, though the challenge of writing a speech in which the call for compromise doesnít evaporate faster than the air out of the presidentís mouth might inspire him to shake things up a bit. If it doesnít, and he tries to conjure our better angels or summon past American heroes, then it will be among the most forgettable speeches, because the next day heís going to return to pitched political battle. He has no time to waste.

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