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What exactly does Obama want?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger: Obama's appeal was as a calm and transformational leader
  • She says he has been a steady hand, but hasn't revealed his key objectives
  • Borger: Is Obama serious about cutting the cost of Medicare and other entitlements?
  • She says sometimes leaders must throw caution to the wind

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama, one might argue, is someone we've gotten to know over the past two years. At first, he was Zelig incarnate, seemingly everywhere, all the time. That's calmed down a bit, but by now his nature is clear: a deep temperamental caution, served with a side order of prudence.

And that probably shouldn't be a complete surprise. After all, we signed a complex contract when we elected Obama the candidate: One part "Cool Hand Luke," the other, an audacious character full of the promise of transformation. We wanted the best of both worlds -- a president without the bravado of a Bush, but with the smarts and ambition of a Clinton.

But what we got with Obama is one style for all seasons -- with uneven results.

Sometimes, the cool presidential temperament works brilliantly. Egypt is a case in point: He carefully told Mubarak to go, verbally supporting the opposition. It worked, without any American military footprint. And the president is clearly hoping for the same result in Libya even as the calls for intervention mount.

Likewise, after getting thumped in the midterm elections, the careful president read the tea-leaves, and compromised with GOP leaders on a tax deal that contained a gift for everyone. Including, as it turns out, his own poll numbers.

Yet sometimes, the caution can be overdone. When the green revolution came to Iran, for instance, Obama was late in speaking out. And on health care, while the call for reform itself was bold, Obama let congressional Democrats take the lead in writing the bill. Throughout the process, it was hard to answer this simple question: What exactly does Obama want?

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  • Barack Obama
  • Libya
  • Medicare
  • The White House
  • Republican Party

And that's the problem. Sure, a knowable -- and real -- presidential temperament is a good thing. I've argued, for instance, that while the public wanted Obama to scream at BP during the oil spill, that wasn't the guy we elected. But there is an important corollary here: The argument for caution and patience is better made when the voters actually understand the ultimate goal.

That's where the confusion about Obama sets in. If you don't know what his endgame is, you're left on your own, trying to interpret his guarded moves. It would help to have a guidepost or two, beyond the assumption that he's a smart, and ultimately pragmatic, fellow -- which, by the way, is far from a universally accepted premise.

Consider the issue of reforming entitlements such as Medicare -- an absolute must to avoid bankrupting the country. On some very high level of abstraction, I suppose we are expected to understand that the president knows we can't go on like this. After all, he appointed a commission to investigate the matter -- alas, he gave them only a cursory nod in his State of the Union speech. And he's spoken vaguely about "getting in the boat" with the GOP to do something about entitlements -- whatever that means. But he did not even minimally address entitlements in his budget.

Sure, we need to allow that the GOP is playing games on the matter: first, promising real entitlement reform in its budget, then promising to simply outline "goals" for reform. But that still doesn't answer the presidential leadership question: Should we believe the president really wants to do something meaningful on reforming entitlements? Or is he looking for a way to have the GOP propose something he can slam, and use it in the next election to mobilize his Democratic base?

It's one thing to keep your distance from actual proposals. But it's another thing to keep your distance from even setting a timetable for broader discussions.

Over at the White House, it seems to be a matter of obvious assumption that Obama is determined to do something. "This president is very serious about taking this issue (entitlement reform) on," a senior White House adviser tells me. "He's taking a strategic approach to maximize results."

In other words, be patient. I have no reason to doubt this adviser's sincerity, but the problem is that -- from the outside -- the distinction between strategic thinking and avoidance is hard to know. The White House is putting a lot of emphasis on the "trust me" proposition. Trust us, they say, and we will move when it's appropriate. "We want results," this adviser says. And if the White House were to go out on a limb and propose something now "it would be shot out of the sky like a clay pigeon."

That may be true. But he is the president. And sometimes the only way to solve big problems is to throw caution to the wind. No matter which way it's blowing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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