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Column: Compromise key to legacy Obama desires

Monday - 4/15/2013, 5:28pm  ET

FILE - In this April 11, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama is seen in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. President Barack Obama wants to slash money for the Democratic sacred cows of Social Security and Medicare. He doesn't agree with a judge _ and women's rights groups _ that girls of any age should have easy access to emergency contraception. He's also hinted that he may disappoint environmentalists by letting the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline be built. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

LIZ SIDOTI
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- He wants to take on the expensive Democratic sacred cows of Social Security and Medicare. He doesn't agree with a judge and women's rights groups that girls of any age should have easy access to emergency contraception. He has hinted that he may disappoint environmentalists by letting the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline be built.

And, to varying degrees, President Barack Obama seems to be going middle-of-the-road on everything from gun control to immigration reform to drone policy, much to the annoyance of many Democratic activists and liberal lawmakers.

It's all in the spirit of his well-used, Voltaire-inspired quote: "We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good." It's also a bow to the reality of getting things done in an era of divided government. And it's enough to make the most loyal Democrats who twice carried him to the White House shake their heads in amazement and anger, wondering this: Just who does Obama think he is?

This is who: A shrewd politician intent on doing what's necessary to emerge from his presidency as a transformational figure -- beyond the scope of being the nation's first non-white president -- with a legacy of having changed entire pillars of a country in a period of significant change. And a president who sees most Americans telling pollsters that they want leaders to put compromise over party loyalty.

"I see him as trying to deliver on one of his original election promises -- to bring people together. This is who Barack Obama is," says Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who ran for president in 2004 and later was a Democratic Party chairman.

He says Obama "absolutely" seeks a transformational legacy. But he adds: "It has nothing to do with Barack Obama himself. It has everything to do with this new generation that's transformational and that elected him."

Less than 100 days into his second term, this is a president no longer hemmed in by the constraints of re-election, namely the constant need to keep the party's foot soldiers happy to ensure money and manpower for a campaign. This is a pragmatic president who sees one last shot -- or, really, 18 months before the midterm congressional elections -- to do big things before becoming a lame duck. And this is a gambling president laying down a huge bet that the Republicans who don't trust him, and the Democrats he's riling up, will help him put his imprint on American society in significant ways.

He'll need both. And it won't be easy.

While Republicans have been involved in the Democratic-run Senate on gun and immigration legislation, Obama faces deep resistance in the GOP-controlled House and can only hope that Speaker John Boehner -- an old-school politician -- continues to bring measures to the floor for a vote even if they lack the support of most Republicans.

If that happens, and it's a big "if," then Obama would need Democrats to stand with him. But many represent districts packed with the nation's most liberal voters, and they have little incentive to help him push through policy that doesn't sit well with the party's left flank.

Plus, a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill also don't feel like they know Obama, much less owe him anything, after helping him get elected twice.

Earned or not, the rap on Obama since he first came to Washington has been that he hasn't made building the Democratic Party a priority, and it's an open secret in Washington that Obama doesn't have much of relationship with congressional Democrats. Party insiders say the president's outreach to Republicans this year also appears to be pushing Democrats on Capitol Hill even further away.

"Schmoozing the Congress is part of the job, and he's just not really good at that," Dean says. "I wasn't very good at that either."

All this raises crucial questions: Has Obama built the coalitions necessary to generate support for his agenda? Can someone who is so divisive even do so?

Right now, he is extending cautious offers of compromise to Republicans while avoiding overtly dissing Democrats. It's a nuanced approach rooted in first-term lessons and reflecting second-term maturity.

In 2009, Obama took office with high expectations set by his own advisers. They talked of a "transformational presidency" filled with big accomplishments to remake society. The president, grappling with a recession and two wars, fell short. He did manage to revamp health care, a significant accomplishment that divided the country.

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