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Thomasson: Barack Obama must show muscle to lead

Former White House press secretary Ron Nessen put it this way at lunch the other day with me and another old friend, former newspaper publisher and current author Herman Obermayer.

"When you're running for the presidency, what you say is what matters. When you get the job, it's what you do that counts."

The three of us -- all in the geezer stage of life -- were discussing Barack Obama's seeming inability to translate his promises into action on nearly every front. To summarize our opinions for their worth, we all agreed he had no taste for using the muscle available to presidents when it comes to getting what they want from Congress. That, of course, led to speculation about what other chief executives might have done -- or, in fact, did -- under similar circumstances, Nessen's former boss Gerald R. Ford included.

Close to the top of Obama's agenda as he ran for the office in 2008 was the closing of Guantanamo prison in Cuba, where some 100 men judged to be a threat to U.S. security are being held. According to the president then and now, it makes no sense and has been an embarrassment to the United States. So he has decided to renew an effort he abandoned shortly after his first inauguration.

What are his chances now? The consensus at our lunch table was that they aren't good. In fact, we decided that few of those things he promised to do in his spectacular campaign for his first election are likely to come to fruition in this next four years.

Lending some credence to that analysis was Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Patrick Toomey's recent statement about his party's reasoning behind voting to derail a popular compromise he had proposed to expand background checks for gun purchases. He said the Senate's GOP minority just wasn't going to do anything that might benefit Obama. While that may be an oversimplification of why the GOP bucked a proposal that had overwhelming public support, there is enough truth in it to give the president and his aides a collective dose of heartburn.

Could it be that the lame-duck stigma of a term-limited president is coming a year and a half early? Usually, it's the last two years that are worrisome for the White House.

The out-of-office party isn't likely to support positions that might enhance the departing chief executive's image. Similarly, those in his own party who are jockeying to succeed him don't want to take many chances, particularly if the presidential approval rating is low.

All this adds up to a very tough second term for a president who likes to whip up public sentiment but not to use much more than this bully pulpit to move his agenda. That includes immigration, tax reform, the budget and, in this instance, the closing of Guantanamo, which some congressional hawks believe is the symbol of America's determination in the war on terrorism.

There are other complications, certainly, like how to get the prisoners' countries of origin to accept them. Also some "Gitmo" detainees may be considered such a continuing threat that they must remain incarcerated for the foreseeable future. Then there is the question of fairness in the entire military tribunal system.

The disconnect between this president and the Republicans in Congress -- and on some issues like gun control, his own Democrats -- is almost palpable in intensity. No one among the three of us could explain quite why, other than to note that Obama comes across better in a crowd than one-on-one. There is more than a hint of intellectual snobbery in his lecturing and often social reclusiveness.

In his press conference the other day, the president blamed much of the gridlock on congressional intransigence, and there is an undeniable amount of that. But there was a note of whining, like saying "It's not my fault, man." In these situations, the fact that Obama filibusters each question with long repetitious responses also may be deliberate, to keep from answering too many. Whatever, it is an off-putting style.

This could be another long hot political summer in Washington.