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The Rose Garden: Obama and His Team Throwing Some Elbows

President Barack Obama, criticized in some quarters for appearing too passive, is projecting a very different aura of late, as he and his aides pick fights all over town while the president transforms himself into the very picture of a wartime leader.

[IMGCAP(1)]Gone is the image conveyed earlier this year of a sensitive president who would coddle his GOP opponents over coffee at the White House or invite insurers over for a meeting or two to hear their health care reform ideas. Now he sharply criticizes insurers and, while he still talks to Republicans, the bipartisan sessions at the White House are few and far between.

Instead, a war of words is waged over the health care bill and other policies, and the president and his aides pick fights with Fox News and the U.S Chamber of Commerce. Obama says he’s been reduced to the job of a porter mopping up the mess created by his very critics.

Meet Barack Obama, tough guy.

When the Associated Press this week put up a story showing the White House had overestimated the job-creating effect of the stimulus, the press office was ready with an immediate response, sent just after midnight.

A White House that once advertised its willingness to let Congress carry the legislative ball now broadcasts that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and the rest of the team are off to Capitol Hill to pitch in as the health care reform bills are readied for floor consideration.

“I think this is bunk!— the president declared when questioned about why no women were invited to join a White House basketball game with Obama and Members of Congress.

The sharp elbows come with a price. Many, even allies and neutral observers, view the mudslinging as beneath the White House and a tactic that diminishes the president. But Obama’s strategists long ago calculated that trench warfare was at hand and they’d better not be afraid to get dirty.

One White House official said the president in his September health care speech to Congress warned of things to come when he promised to “call out— his foes.

“But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than to improve it,— Obama said. “I won’t stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out.—

The White House blames Republicans for dropping the olive branch. Republicans say Obama was never serious. Either way, it’s on.

Even as he shows he’s not afraid to fling some mud, Obama is elevating his image into that of a war president.

The metamorphosis is marked by a drumbeat of meetings between Obama and his national security and military advisers to deliberate war strategy for Afghanistan. While MSNBC has not yet been invited into the Situation Room, the meetings are easy to spot in the daily White House schedule, complete with lists of attendees and topics. White House aides say this is little more than a continuation of the “transparency— the president seeks. Even so, the image of a commander convening his war tribunal is unmistakable.

Obama’s midnight trip Thursday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to meet the coffins of fallen soldiers offered an unusual glimpse of Obama as wartime president grappling with the job’s most difficult challenge.

The White House has suddenly started hauling out a recording of “Hail to the Chief— to introduce the president at public events. Obama has even begun to end his appearances with the unmistakably presidential refrain “God bless America,— a phrase used habitually by his predecessors but which he has mostly eschewed.

White House officials say there is no conscious effort to toughen the president’s image and that they certainly are not responding to any suggestions Obama is not macho enough for the job.

Murmurs about whether Obama had the “right stuff— reached a crescendo with the Oct. 17 publication in National Journal magazine of a front-page piece titled “Is He Tough Enough?— The magazine was brandished the next day by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Sunday news show “This Week.—

Stephanopoulos posed the question to Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, who opined that Obama is plenty tough enough.

A top White House aide asserted that no one in the West Wing cares.

“One of this president’s great skills is his ability to ignore the cocktail party chatter and cable TV catnip that is fodder for so much discussion in Washington,— White House Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said. “The idea that a story promoting such a ridiculous premise would have an impact on the White House is simply absurd.—

But whether by plan, by natural evolution or in reaction to the traditional Washington Cuisinart treatment, Obama has made himself a little less kinder and gentler. How it works for him remains to be seen.

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