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Commentary: Obama shows he still both a conciliator and a fighter

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WASHINGTON -- It took less than three weeks for the real Barack Obama to come into view. He turns out to be both a conciliator and a fighter.

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These are not contradictions in his character. They represent different sides of a politician who sees some issues as more susceptible to compromise than others, and who wants his adversaries to know that his easygoing style does not make him a pushover.

The sudden clarity emerged in the two best speeches of his short presidency and in the ongoing saga of the stimulus bill.

Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday with a warning against the use of religion "as a tool to divide us from one another -- as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance."

Obama did not cite Isaiah's injunction that we should come and reason together, but it seemed to be on his mind: "For it is only through common struggle and common effort, as brothers and sisters, that we fulfill our highest purpose as beloved children of God."

That was in the morning. By evening, when the president spoke to Democratic House members in Williamsburg, Va., he had cast aside his efforts to placate Republicans who had no intention of reasoning with him on the stimulus bill. Obama had turned the other cheek often enough.

"Don't come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis," the born-again campaigner thundered. "We are not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin."

Deploying a preacher's unapologetically judgmental cadences, Obama denounced "the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face." He reiterated that argument in his Saturday radio address and will press it in speeches on the road this week.

The Williamsburg speech let loose a great gnashing of teeth from those who seem to believe that bipartisan form matters more than substance. But the new tone reflected the very thing about Obama that has won so much notice: He's a pragmatist who takes a method and tries it until it no longer works.

Initially, Obama hoped to win broad Republican support for his stimulus package, but most Republicans preferred to bloody up this new, young president. Obama adjusted. If the GOP wanted a fight, he would not back down.

Obama's tougher rhetoric and the terrible new economic news helped push a handful of wavering senators to agree to a compromise stimulus bill on Friday. Still, there was a cost to Obama's delayed response to Republican provocations. By giving conservatives a week to savage the House-passed stimulus, Obama weakened his negotiating hand.

The changes made in the proposal to pick up votes from a few Republican senators made it less effective than the House bill. Programs that would spur the economy -- aid to fiscally ailing states, more help for the needy, spending on education and the environment -- were cut back. Kept in were tax cuts with limited stimulative value that the Senate had added.

Nonetheless, Obama staved off defeat, and the Senate bill is better than it might have been. A House-Senate conference should fix some of the inequities in the compromise, and its critics can use Obama's own arguments to explain their insistence on a better final product.

But fighting for his recovery program does not preclude Obama's efforts to ease the cultural conflicts that have divided the country since the late 1960s. Obama is happy to wage war on right-wing economic theories and overpaid Wall Street executives; he does not want to pick fights with those who are moderate or conservative on cultural and religious matters.

Obama's own cultural instincts run right down the middle of the road. His politics are more neo-Truman than neo-Woodstock, more compatible with "It's a Wonderful Life" than "Easy Rider."

He supports abortion rights but argues for fewer abortions. He supports religious liberty, but thinks religion has a legitimate public role. MTV loyalists love him, but he models a family life more likely to play on the Disney Channel.

So Obama's decision to fight Republicans on the stimulus bill doesn't mean he's lost his conciliatory instincts. It means he's neither a chump nor a wimp. There are rank-and-file cultural conservatives willing to join Obama to end the feuds of the 1960s. But Washington conservatives, insisting that tax cuts are the one and only important matter in American life, are stuck in a 1980s time warp.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is postchat@aol.com.

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