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Obama's Graciousness Deficit

At a White House meeting he throws an elbow ("I won") and chides them for supposedly following the dictates of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. (The Beltway Republicans are not above the latter, by the way, but their objections to the "stimulus" plan are on sound policy grounds.) Anyone who gets in his way is just opposed to "change."

Why do this? President Obama is the one whom we were told has unlimited empathy, who can bring people with differing perspectives together without recrimination. He is not hobbled by the Bush-Clinton political wars which left both sides of the political aisle exhausted and in low repute. He, of all people, had the ability to start fresh and elevate the tone in Washington.

We are seeing, I think, the unlimited hubris of a candidate enjoying sky-high poll ratings and media adoration who believes he owes his opponents only civility, but not respect. And it suggests that the need to maintain the high-wire act of "change" (without the benefit of true policy innovation) feeds the constant need to differentiate himself from -- and ultimately diminish-- his predecessor and opponents.

The danger is that he loses that rarest of presidential commodities, which is the ability to operate on a higher plane than the squabbling politicians and sniping pundits surrounding him. Indeed, by invoking Limbaugh's name he brought on not only a finely crafted response (which made a convincing case that the stimulus is a political maneuver not an economic recovery plan), but ensnared himself in exactly the sort of political bric-a-brac he wants to avoid.

It may not matter in the end because he does, after all, have the votes to pass much of his agenda. But it is being remembered and absorbed by his opponents, and even by less politically-minded onlookers. They might wonder why the new president who has the luxury to be magnanimous isn't. And when the going gets tough, or his Congressional majority narrows (as it usually does after the first mid-year election), he might need the good will of the other party.

So perhaps President Obama, who has an overabundance of confidence, can settle into his new surroundings and find ways to maintain his own standing without sniping at his opponents.

He might, for example, acknowledge that we aren't just "ending" the war or leaving Iraq to the Iraqis. We are winning, or if he prefers, "completing the mission." Those who championed the surge, not to mention the troops still fighting, would certainly notice and appreciate it. (Like it or not he's completing Bush's Iraq policy -- not departing from it.) And when he talks about changing stem cell policy -- which is so ticklish a subject he may defer to Congress -- he can leave out the dig about "restor[ing] science to its rightful place." He can just tell us what he wants to do and why he thinks it is right. And he might argue the merits of his stimulus plan rather than resort to ad hominem attacks.

In sum, President Obama is an elegant man who enjoys the goodwill of most citizens. He should not fritter away his standing nor diminish his stature by perpetuating "childish things," including a constant stream of one-upsmanship. Graciousness goes a long way in life, and in politics.

And it may come in handy some day