11/15/2010 04:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Choice: The Stand that Will Make Him or Break Him

Frank Rich's excellent column in this week's Sunday Times deconstructs the bipartisan responsibility for a state of affairs in which the share of wealth of the top 1 percent of the population has grown from 9 percent in 1970 to 24 percent today. Referencing Linda McMahon, Rich wonders whether Obama has what it takes to kick the Republicans in the cojones on the issue of tax cuts for the rich.

I'm starting to think the President has a terminal case of reasonableness. He is so committed to doing things the right way that he doesn't seem to be able to do the right thing. Afghanistan? Study it for three months, then commit to a strategy that will only delay our inevitable withdrawal while preventing drastically needed cuts in defense spending. Healthcare? Signal a willingness to compromise with the uncompromising, giving all the ground in exchange for zero Republican support and a watered-down giveaway to the insurance companies. DADT? Laboriously commit to a doubtful congressional overturn, while refusing to invoke national security to halt all investigations.

In the most hyper-political atmosphere since the Civil War, we are being led by a procedural President. And now on tax cuts, he still refuses to learn the lesson that perception counts. Almost no one perceives Barack Obama as willing to draw a line in the sand and stick to it, and on perhaps the most crucial issue to the future of the country, income inequality, he is once again letting the line erode. It's a grievous mistake that could hobble the rest of his Presidency.

This advice might be a week too late but I'm going to give it anyway. This is the statement the President should make: "I will sign a bill that is only an extension of middle-class tax cuts. I will veto any bill that also has an extension of tax cuts for the rich. Period." Then he should walk away from the podium.

There is a risk that all the tax-cuts will expire as a result. That is not remotely the worst thing that could happen, especially if the President points out loudly and repeatedly that this expiration was mandated by the Republicans themselves in 2001. He could also drive home that under this very tax structure, Clintonian America saw a prodigious growth in jobs. Finally, he could point to a huge, immediate rise in revenue. (Btw, taxes would remain low or non-existent on the poor and unemployed. Those who would see a modest uptick would be the overwhelmingly employed.)

I find it very hard to believe that a tax-hating Republican majority will not eventually pass tax cuts for just the middle class in the new Congress. If they keep including the rich in the bills they send him, (requiring a doubtful 60 votes in the Senate) Obama needs to keep using his veto. When they cave -- and they will -- Obama can run on it in 2012. In the unlikely event that they don't, he can run on a vastly lower deficit, while correctly pointing out he cut taxes in the stimulus.

Either way, he will have shown the electorate he can face down the bully. This would mean he understands the true lesson of the midterms. As irrational and self-sabotaging as their choices can be, Americans are attracted to conviction. They laud compromise to pollsters, but they punish politicians for it. Anything but wishy-washy.

Obama is at a crossroads. If he really wants to become our F.D.R, he has to choose between his inner Jimmy Carter or his inner Teddy Roosevelt.