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Obama, Our Celebrity President, Faces Real World Test

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WASHINGTON -- Ladies and gentlemen, the envelope please. The Oscar for best performance in the role of Mainstream Cultural Icon goes to ... first lady Michelle Obama.

With the practiced ease of an old Hollywood hand, Mrs. Obama presided Sunday night, by live remote from the White House, over the Best Picture Award ceremony in the Oscars' finale. It was just the most recent and most glitteringly dramatic example of how the Obama administration has conquered the world of celebrity and social communication.

The downside of this Celebrity Presidency is not yet known. But it will be tested this spring and summer in a series of budget crises that amount to a reality show drama about leadership -- with real-world consequences for all Americans.

President Barack Obama is facing a Washington version of Wall Street's "triple-witching hour," a pileup of fateful deadlines in tight sequence. He'll be hit with the $85 billion sequester cuts likely to begin Friday, a possible government-wide shutdown if no deal is reached on the overall budget by March 27 and yet another collision over the debt ceiling this summer.

So the show's plot is simple: Can a popular president, recently reelected and reigning supreme culturally and socially, master -- for the sake of prosperity and his vision of a just society -- the sclerotic tribal dynamics of Washington?

In his first term, Obama largely turned over the task of passing his signature health care reform to his Democratic allies on the Hill. This challenge now is more systemic, and Congress is more the problem than the solution.

Which means the president is going to have to handle this one personally. Building popular pressure can help. Indeed, it is indispensable. But restructuring the budget, the core challenge, is going to demand eons of time in private with people he doesn't like or trust.

The president doesn't hide his disdain for Congress, for the folkways of traditional Washington, for the petty egos in Congress and the media. He has unified the Democrats under his banner, but he doesn't think they need to be tended to personally.

As for the GOP, this isn't a level playing field; it's hardly a playing field at all. The Obamas are cool, appealing, connected (literally) and, as such, liked and trusted by most Americans. The GOP is none of those things, at least to most Americans, only 22 percent of whom identify themselves as Republicans today.

More important, Obama's policies are generally liked by the public as a whole. Voters claim to distrust government and surely dislike Washington, but they also agree with the president's we're-all-in-this-together domestic policies, his nonjudgmental social views and his natural (and seemingly growing) distrust of heavy military commitments abroad.

Culturally isolated, politically cornered, lacking direction and confidence as they struggle to assemble a new vision, Republican conservatives (a redundancy these days) are ready to fight back the only way they think they can: by shutting down government. House Republicans and their Senate allies, such as the commie-hunting Texan Ted Cruz, are eager to play the role of '60s students occupying the admin building, while House Speaker John Boehner plays the role of the clueless Dean Wormer.

It's a potentially farcical and juvenile replay of a profound moment almost 60 years ago, when the late William F. Buckley launched his conservative National Review by writing that it "stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."

Buckley wasn't into cheap theatrics and government shutdowns. Neither should Obama be. Somebody has to be an adult in this situation, and it falls to the president

And there is some justice in that. He was the one who first suggested the too-cute-by-half ploy of sequester. He was the one who put entitlements "on the table" for serious discussion, but hasn't talked much about that side of the equation lately. He said he wants a Grand Bargain. And he is president. He loves Lincoln and "Lincoln." He has to dive in.

Celebrity won't help him put all of the fiscal pieces together. In fact, his unglamorous political rivals resent him for it. They are jealous, and they know he doesn't like to share the platform.

In the meantime, Obama continues to drub the GOP in the message game.

As the first lady was preparing to speak at the Oscars Sunday night, the administration at 8 p.m. released a detailed rundown of the state and local pain it predicts will result from the sequester. With little or no time to chew over the report before deadlines, The Washington Post, among many others, front-paged the administration-assembled stories of possible mayhem, together with the implication that it could only be prevented by a renewed Republican willingness to raise taxes further on the rich.

As for social media, it is no contest. Republicans are nowhere to be seen in the upper reaches of Twitter, while the president ranks fifth, surrounded by other cultural icons such as Lady Gaga, Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey.

Maybe those three could help him craft a big budget deal. Now that show would be a hit.