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The Fear Factor

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In The Prince, published in 1532, Nicolo Machiavelli asked whether it was better for a prince to be loved or feared. His answer: "One should wish to be both, but because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is safer to be feared than loved.'' That is true for presidents as well as princes.

President Obama is loved by many. He is also respected and admired for one quality above all others -- his cool. Again and again during last year's campaign, candidate Obama displayed coolness under pressure. Like on Super Tuesday, after he lost primaries in New York, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts to Hillary Clinton. Obama stirred his dispirited supporters, declaring, "What began as a whisper has now swelled to a chorus, that cannot be ignored, that will not be deterred, that will ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, and make this time different than all the rest. Yes, we can!''

Or when he faced criticism over his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama responded by delivering an eloquent speech about race relations. Or when he found himself under attack for his remarks about economically hard-pressed small-town voters who "get bitter'' and "cling to guns or religion.'' Obama acknowledged, "I didn't say it as well as I should have.''

Obama's coolness under pressure provided a sharp contrast with John McCain. McCain got rattled by the financial crisis, suspended his campaign and rushed back to Washington where he tried, unsuccessfully, to urge Republicans in Congress to support a Wall Street bailout.

Obama's coolness is reassuring to Americans during times of uncertainty and anxiety. People need to believe the president is in control of the situation. But coolness is not enough. To get what he wants from Congress, a president also needs toughness. The sort of toughness that Harry Truman displayed when he fired General Douglas Macarthur. That John F. Kennedy displayed in the Cuban missile crisis. That Lyndon Johnson displayed when he wrestled Congress into submission on Medicare and civil rights. That Ronald Reagan displayed when he faced down a strike by air traffic controllers. Members of Congress must understand that they cannot defy the president with impunity. They must fear him.

It did candidate Reagan no end of good when he refused to allow his microphone to be cut off in a New Hampshire primary debate, angrily protesting, "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.'' The line was actually borrowed from an old Spencer Tracy movie, but never mind. It worked.

As Congress reconvenes, President Obama is facing opposition on two fronts. The right is ready to do battle over health care reform. A demoralized Republican Party has suddenly found its resolve strengthened. Because of a rediscovered commitment to principle? No. Because conservative activists laid out a path of defiance. They angrily disrupted town hall meetings across the country, showing no fear of standing up to the vaunted strength of the Obama movement. They got in President Obama's face -- in some cases, monstrously distorting his face to make him look like Hitler.

A lot of people expected those outrageous tactics to alienate the American public. But opposition to the president's ideas for health care reform increased over the summer. Especially among seniors, 60 percent of whom now say they oppose the president's plans for health care reform, according to a CNN poll taken at the end of August (60 percent of Americans under 35 support the president on this issue).

President Obama also faces a revolt on the left over the war in Afghanistan. If the president endorses the military's request for a substantial troop increase, liberals appear ready to resist. And the country may follow. In the CNN poll, public opposition to the war in Afghanistan has increased steadily with as U.S. casualties have grown, from 46 percent opposed in April to 57 percent in August. Among Democrats, opposition has grown even more rapidly, from 55 percent in April to 73 percent now.

The antiwar movement is planning to challenge President Obama on Afghanistan this fall. The leader of U.S. Labor Against the War warned in an interview with the New York Times, "President Obama risks his entire domestic agenda, just as Johnson did in Vietnam, in pursuing this course of action in Afghanistan.'' Who is with President Obama on Afghanistan? At this point, mostly Republicans.

Congressional Democrats are getting worried about preserving their majorities next year. A new Pew poll shows favorable opinion of Congress at its lowest point since at least 1985. Lower than in 1994, when voters overthrew the Democratic majority. Democrats may abandon the president if they don't believe he can offer them political cover. That starts to happen when the President's job approval rating dips below 50 percent. Right now, the Pew poll shows him at 52, the CNN poll at 53.

The president seemed to buckle under political pressure on the closing of the Guantanamo detention facility. Israel is resisting U.S. pressure to freeze settlements on the West Bank. Somewhere, sometime, the president must demonstrate that there is a price to be paid for defying him. Mr. Obama has proved that he can be inspiring. But at this point, what he needs to inspire most of all is fear.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author, they do not represent the views of Third Way