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Obama must pull his party into line

By Ruben Navarrette, Special to CNN
  • Navarrette says Obama admirably took on ideological foes in Congress this week
  • But he went too easy on Democrats who have blocked his agenda, he says
  • Democrats are as willing as Republicans to take pork, pander, he says
  • Navarrette: Obama must be willing to force issues, confront critics in his own party

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to Contact him here.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Watching Barack Obama hold separate Q&A's with members of Congress -- House Republicans last week, Senate Democrats this week -- has its ups and downs

On the one hand, I was impressed with how Obama took on his ideological adversaries in the House, challenging them to keep an open mind and making them seem like crybabies for wanting to set the national agenda even though they keep losing elections.

Yet, on the other, I was depressed at how he squandered a meeting Wednesday with his former Democratic Senate colleagues, who are as blinded by partisanship and intent on putting their interest ahead of their constituents' as anyone in Washington.

Outside the Beltway, Obama likes to play the role of the centrist who wrings his hands over how both parties behave in Washington. He casts himself as the outsider mystified by the way in which the hard-liners oversimplify tough problems and approach every issue in terms of all or nothing. Bashing both parties sells.

But inside the Beltway, Obama is a pure partisan. He spent his time before Senate Democrats giving them a pep talk. He urged them to stand firm and not abandon health care reform and the rest of his agenda amid public resistance. He didn't criticize Democrats when he spoke to Republicans, but he sure didn't hold back on criticizing Republicans when trying to rally Democrats. While he was effective in giving Republicans a cold shower, all he offered his own party was a warm bath.

What a wasted opportunity. If Obama was still in the mood to fight, he could have picked a few brawls in that room. After all, as we've seen, Democrats can be the greatest obstacles to the president's agenda.

When the issue is health care, it is conservative Democrats who balk at a government takeover of the health care system and a government-funded public option that could mess things up for those of us who like the medical care we receive.

And when the issue turns to immigration reform -- oops, better make that, if the debate turns to immigration reform, since it doesn't look like Obama is ready to "man up" on that front and keep his promise to deliver a plan -- we're likely to hear again from these Blue Dogs, who find it easier to oppose what they call "amnesty" than to take on the businesses that create the problem by hiring illegal immigrants. What profiles in courage.

But Obama also has trouble on the horizon from liberal Democrats who, at least three times during his State of the Union Address, offered only faint applause at the mention of specific agenda items. When he talked about cutting discretionary spending, reforming the public schools by holding teachers accountable, and expanding trade around the world to keep pace with countries like India and China, he put liberal Democrats in a tough spot.

They're addicted to pork and beholden to teachers unions that oppose education reform. They're also willing to flirt with protectionism to take care of organized labor, which has lost its appetite to compete and views globalization as a threat. Those intramural battles are coming in the months ahead. Count on it

With that in mind, here's what Obama should have said:

"My fellow Democrats, we will not always agree. And on those occasions when we disagree, I can promise you that I will reach across the aisle and work with moderate Republicans who support specific items on my agenda. But I remain a Democrat because -- in the tradition of Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton -- I believe in defending the little guy and giving voice to those who are silent as we go about improving the lives of others. I expect you to help me do this, not just because it's the right thing but also because it's why you came to Washington in the first place."

On spending, education and trade, Obama is right and his Democratic opponents are wrong. But being right doesn't always mean winning the argument. To do that, he has to be willing to force the issue and confront critics wherever he finds them -- even if it's within the family.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette, Jr.