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President goes from audacious to cautious

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Say what you wish about Barack Obama, you have to acknowledge that the man displayed an exquisite sense of timing four years ago. He was a (very) junior senator then, with a half term of service in the Capitol. The leading voices in the Democratic Party -- Hillary Clinton, Gen. Wesley Clark, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and John Edwards -- were organizing their presidential campaigns. They were all veterans of the political wars, each with plausible routes to the Democratic nomination, some with established political organizations, all with appealing life stories.

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But then, in February 2007, Obama announced he was going to run for president.

You could almost hear the howls of disbelief: too young, too inexperienced, too liberal, too closely identified with minority politics. But the more Obama was told it wasn't his time, the more he believed it might be. And he was right.

Timing is important in presidential politics, but sometimes so is audacity. Obama knew that intuitively, and it is not a coincidence that he married audacity with his greatest campaign gift and titled his second book "The Audacity of Hope." It was audacious -- actually it stretched the conventional meaning of audacity -- for someone less than three years out of the Illinois state Senate to think he could or should be the president of the United States.

So -- and you knew this was coming -- the story of the past two years is that Barack Obama lost his sense of timing and his instinct for audacity.

The man who knew just when to say exactly the right thing -- to make the precisely correct gesture -- is repeatedly days, weeks, sometimes even months behind, so much so that it almost seems he is out of sync with the new rhythms of American politics.

Obama may hate the velocity of events -- a common complaint for older politicians, but not for people his age -- yet for all his powers as president he cannot slow them. Even Princeton basketball has abandoned the slowdown offense that Pete Carril pioneered and used to take the Tigers to the NCAA tournament 11 times and to upend UCLA in 1996. Today they play the same game everyone else does.

Moreover, the man who knew when to do the audacious thing has traded that in for a new trademark: caution. I know the perils of this sort of metric, but the words "cautious" and "Obama" appear together more than 13 million times on the Internet. That's more than five times as often as the pairing "audacious" and "Obama."

There is great virtue in caution and in its first cousin, prudence, a favorite word of former President George H.W. Bush. Presidents should be cautious when sending Americans into danger or tinkering with the economy.

Yet there are increasing signs that the president is paralyzed by caution. Often it is prudent -- that word again -- to hold back, to let things develop. It is especially useful to hold back when your rivals are self-destructing, which was a smart strategy for Obama in the earliest days of his presidency.

But modern Republicans have made perhaps the soundest and sturdiest recovery in history. They weren't in as big a hole in 2009 as they were in 1965, after the Goldwater debacle, to be sure, but they've climbed out with remarkable speed and skill, which is why the Obama conundrum is so perplexing and his apparent dispassion so puzzling.

The president's budget speech last week was clearly an effort to regain the offensive, but the pertinent and persistent question is why a president who faces no discernible opponent for re-election and who has a party majority in the Senate is so much on the defensive.

Put another way: How often has a single chamber of Congress completely dominated the substance and rhythms of politics?

By most measures, Speaker John Boehner is not the president's equal in intelligence, eloquence, elegance or nimbleness. Then again, by most measures, Boehner has bested the president every time they have tangled.

Indeed, it is not too much to say that Boehner is the Reggie Jackson of the capital: the straw that is stirring the Washington drink. That's quite an achievement, given that Boehner is struggling to balance his tea party freshmen with his Kiwanis Club frontbenchers.

But all of the important struggles of the current period are being conducted on Boehner's turf and are being shaped by Boehner's Republican caucus, as raucous a caucus as it is. Indeed, the budget debate, which Obama sought in his speech to portray as a fight to preserve "a progressive vision of our society," is mostly about the overhaul House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan wants to conduct rather than on the social contract the president wants to preserve.

In his glory days, Newt Gingrich never approximated the power Boehner has amassed in only three months. Other powerful House speakers, like Joe Cannon and Thomas Brackett Reed (known as "Czar Reed" when the phrase had real meaning, in part because there was a real czar in Russia), held sway over their chambers, but no one thought that Speaker Reed was more powerful than President William McKinley or that Speaker Cannon was more powerful than President Theodore Roosevelt. And already Ryan has become the most influential chairman of the House Budget Committee since it was established in 1974.

Obama couldn't help but weigh in with a major address on the budget issue, given that the country faces a $1.5 trillion deficit this year and a debt of more than $14 trillion -- so troubling a situation that the International Monetary Fund said last week that the United States lacks a "credible strategy" to attack the debt problem.

But his public entry into the debate was late, just as his high-profile entries into the Egyptian and Libyan matters were late. So used to Obama's absence were members of a bipartisan Senate committee laboring on a debt-reduction plan that the leaders of the group suggested the president could be getting in the way of progress.

The president's frequent allusions to Ronald Reagan make his allies uncomfortable. But President Reagan often said that he didn't care who got credit as long as the work was done.

Perhaps that is Obama's strategy. If so, he is succeeding well enough at a time of divided government to reinforce the notion that the Republicans are the party in power in Washington.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Executive Editor and longtime political columnist David Shribman replaces Morton Kondracke, who retired his weekly column.

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