WASHINGTON -- At any given political moment, the most important public judgment made about a president is not "liberal" or "conservative"; it is "strong" or "weak." A verdict of weakness tends to be self-reinforcing. Every stumble proves the narrative, while achievements that contradict that narrative are downplayed or ignored. (See Jimmy Carter.) But the converse is also true. Strength has a momentum of its own.
President Obama possesses a certain kind of strength, which I had underestimated. His reserve is not passionless. During the health care debate, Obama has been tenacious, even ruthless. Following the Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts, he reacted with anger and ambition, not conciliation. He rejected a "skinny bill" out of hand. He was willing to employ and defend any method -- budget gimmicks, special deals, procedural tricks -- to achieve his goal. His methods were flexible -- the legislation violates some of his own campaign pledges on health care reform, including the imposition of an individual mandate -- but his determination was firm. When push came to shove, he shoved.
In the process, Obama has joined the pantheon of progressive presidents. Some of them, such as the ruthlessly cheerful Franklin Roosevelt, were politically dominant. Others ended as political failures: Woodrow Wilson, cold, cerebral and unloved; Lyndon Johnson, passionate, prideful and broken. But each tested the limits of executive power, changed the relationship between citizens and the state, and inspired generations to love or disdain. Obama now belongs in this company.
The politics of health reform is nearly as complex as the legislation itself. To have raised this issue first -- before a serious emphasis on job creation and economic growth -- still seems a serious mistake. Obama's progressive agenda did not align with public priorities, which has cost him support. Once he embarked on that agenda, however, abandoning it would have fed a narrative of weakness that could have undermined the entire Obama presidency.