Analysis: Will Obama flinch or fight _ or both?

WASHINGTON -- When Barack Obama was considering running for president in 2006, the political strategist who had engineered his Senate victory two years earlier bluntly stated a potentially fatal concern.

"I don't know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch," David Axelrod wrote Obama.

Then and now, that's the question: When the going gets rough, as it did in the campaign and has many times over the first seven-plus months of his presidency, does Obama flinch or fight.

Well, both.

There's a pattern to Obama's responses to difficulty or intransigence, whether in foreign and domestic affairs: typically Mr. Nice Guy at first, combative only when forced, and ever-ready to deal in the margins. He flinches and then fights, or fights and then flinches.

Of course it depends on who is doing the judging. Many fellow Democrats think Obama is a wuss for not pushing hard for the boldest health care overhaul, for instance, while many Republicans are openly admiring of his aggressive stance on Afghanistan.

And it depends on the circumstances.

"He knows how to count," said Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University presidential scholar. "When you get down to the core of his ambitions, then he'll fight. ... But before he puts the gloves on, he's going to take a pretty hard look at whether he has a chance to win."

In that November 2006 memo, first revealed in "The Battle for America 2008" by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, Axelrod worried about Obama's "ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism." What's more, even if Obama could take the heat, Axelrod wondered whether Obama would have what it takes to fight back - to turn fiasco into opportunity.

As Wayne says now: "He's very risk averse." But Obama demonstrated during the campaign that he was plenty tough. He survived long, brutal primaries, hard-to-defend statements by his pastor and a more difficult fall fight against Republican John McCain than his operation had planned for.

In fact, the Axelrod memo could have been more a psychological tactic - designed as a kick in the pants rather than as true concern. In an interview this past week, the adviser didn't say, but he did insist the campaign helped Obama hone a style he now uses as president.


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