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Obama's Stimulus Rope-a-dope

Barack Obama is nothing if not a master rope-a-doper. For months last year, anxious liberals pleaded with him to respond to John McCain's lacerating attacks. And, for months, Obama soared above the fray. Then, in early September, the McCain campaign squeezed out two ludicrously dishonest ads-accusing Obama of force-feeding sex education to kindergarteners and of calling Sarah Palin a pig. The press screamed bloody murder-Joe Klein labeled the former "one of the sleaziest ads I've ever seen;" Joy Behar of "The View" personally told McCain they were "lies." At which point Obama saw an opportunity. With the media having pronounced McCain the aggressor and him the victim, Obama began to whale away-on healthcare, on McCain's age, even Charles Keating-with virtual impunity.

My sense is that we're seeing something similar play out with the stimulus. For weeks now, Obama has soared above the fray-inviting dour-looking Republicans to the White House for cookies and patiently hearing them out on Capitol Hill. Once again, the Republicans have exploited this stance, notching a series of tactical victories, like their unanimous no-vote in the House last week. And, once again, liberals have panicked. "[W]hy in these desperate times does he seem to care so much about being liked by the side he defeated?" Tina Brown wondered.

But complaints like this miss what's been accomplished these last few weeks: Obama has completely defined the stimulus narrative on his own terms. To the average voter, Obama has been earnest and conciliatory while the Republicans have been cynical, self-serving, and puerile. Which, if the past is any guide, is precisely the moment he'll start playing hardball.

In fact, Obama spent Monday basically telegraphing these intentions. The headlines from his trip to Elkhart, Indiana, focused mostly on his comments about the urgency of the stimulus. But the day's key moment took place toward the end of the town hall meeting. After a weekend in which the White House scrupulously avoided any indication it preferred the House version of the stimulus to the stingier Senate compromise, Obama let it be known that he'd like to see some of the Senate's education cuts restored.

Then, at his press conference last night, Obama sounded like a man who was done soliciting ideas and was ready to lay out the stark terms of debate: A vote against for the stimulus is a vote against jobs-in particular, the 4 million the plan would save or create. (He used the word "jobs" 19 times in his 1,000-word preamble.) Once the questioning began, he explicitly announced the end to the bipartisan phase of this operation: "I think that, as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated," he said. "But understand the bottom line that I've got right now, which is what's happening to the people of Elkhart and what's happening across the country. I can't afford to see Congress play the usual political games."

Here's what I'd guess is likely to happen over the next few days: The conference committee tasked with ironing out differences between the House and Senate stimulus bills will undo most of the roughly $65 billion in cuts to state aid, education, and health care spending the Senate centrists negotiated. To pay for it, they'll junk the $70-billion in Alternative Minimum Tax relief the Senate showered on the upper-middle class.

Republicans will protest that Obama and Congressional Democrats have trampled on the Senate compromise and unilaterally re-imposed their liberal priorities. They'll sprinkle in a collection of shopworn clich