WASHINGTON -- Can Barack Obama be the tough guy?
There he was in the Rose Garden today, comparing himself to George Washington and the Republicans to the soon-to-be-crushed Whiskey Rebels. He issued veto threats and denied he was engaged in "class warfare" even while he engaged in a little, well, class warfare.
As former President Bill Clinton pointed out, any time you talk about raising taxes, the Republicans scream "class warfare" anyway. Obama in effect said, 'You're right Bill, so here goes!'
But the question -- politically and substantively -- is whether Obama can scare his enemies the way The Father of Our Country did. After all, the president has spent most of the last three years behaving more like a consensus-seeking chief justice than a kick-ass commander in chief.
In the 1790s, frontier distillers in Western Pennsylvania were refusing to pay a federal tax on the whiskey they made, and Washington gathered a force of state militias designed to frighten the rebels into paying up. No one likes to pay taxes, he said, but the country was still digging out of the Revolutionary War and needed the funds. Rather than face the wrath of the Man on the White Horse, the distillers caved, and the new country got the revenue.
In the Rose Garden today, this ancient argument -- as old as the United States itself -- came to life again in the context of the discussion of how to cut the $14 trillion federal debt. The president threatened to veto any debt-reduction measure that reduces Medicare and other programs if does not also raise revenue, specifically by making the wealthy -- individuals and corporations -- pay more.
"This is not class warfare," he said. "It's math." He added, "We can't afford to continue special rates for the wealthy."
Can the president muscle the GOP into a deal that includes revenue in the form of a revival of pre-Bush Era taxes on the rich? He's going to try -- and be seen trying.
But let's be clear about what is going on. This is not the beginning of a sober effort in Washington to reduce the debt by the $4 trillion that most analysts agree is the minimum necessary. Rather, it is the start of a fall season of politics that will bleed directly into the 2012 campaign.
The chances that lawmakers will strike a grand bargain of the kind the president is proposing are low to non-existent. Obama may wish he were Washington, but the Republicans have more clout -- and more Super PACs -- than the Whiskey Rebels. At the same time, a deal like the one suggested by Speaker John Boehner, which relies solely on spending cuts, is just as unrealistic, assuming that the president is willing to keep his word and veto any bill the GOP could bring forth.
In theory, of course, there is a committee in which to fashion such a deal: the congressional "super committee," charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in debt-reduction measures. It has a deadline for action (or failure) of late November.
But by design the panel is evenly divided. And by choice -- that is, the appointments made by each party -- it is filled with reliable partisans. So the capital is going to spend the next three months, until the Thanksgiving recess, transfixed by a process that almost everyone in the city thinks will be all-consuming but unavailing.
After that, what? By law, a "trigger" will kick in calling for more than $800 billion in automatic cuts in spending -- mostly defense ($489 billion) and other programs, including money paid to doctors, hospitals and other health care providers under Medicare.
And yet "triggers" are nothing more than laws passed by Congress. They can be amended by this or a succeeding Congress. If it comes to that point -- and it looks as though it will -- are the president and Congress a match for the combined force of the Pentagon, the doctors and the hospitals?
Even George Washington would have a tough time against that army.
Follow Howard Fineman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/howardfineman