“President Barack Obama’s proposed budget this week raised a key question about how he governs: Can he lead without getting out in front?…

“Changing entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security will be harder: He faces a Republican-led House of Representatives on this one. And he’ll eventually have to offer more specifics to drive the debate, analysts say. But he’s clearly trying to forge a new model of presidential leadership adapted to a new age.

“‘It’s a potentially effective strategy for Obama,’ said Bruce Buchanan, a scholar of the presidency at the University of Texas. ‘Leadership has always been changeable across presidential history.'”

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“Has the president ever called him to talk? ‘Never once,’ [Ryan] says, notwithstanding Mr. Obama’s many public statements that he wants ‘aggressive’ conversations with Republicans, especially Mr. Ryan. ‘He keeps saying that,’ says the Wisconsin native, but ‘they don’t talk to us. It just doesn’t really happen. I don’t know what else to say.’…

“Paradoxically, however, he says the president’s budget has helped Republicans. By failing to lead with such a loud thud, Mr. Obama has helped the cause of reformers within the House GOP. Some in the leadership had been wary of taking on entitlement reform—that’s Medicaid, Medicare and perhaps Social Security—but this week tipped them over the edge.

“‘We have a lot of fiscal conservatives here. We have a determined caucus. . . . That is very helpful. We have a fiscal reality that is obvious and we have a president who is failing to lead. We feel duty bound to lead ourselves,’ he says.”

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“The president has enormous faith in getting smart people around the table and initiating technocratic reform. But you can’t renegotiate the social contract in private. You have to have public buy-in. You have to spend years out in public educating voters about the size of the problem and what will be required. You have to show voters what a solution looks like.

“The New Deal wasn’t passed by a president who led quietly from the back. Neither was the Great Society or the Reagan Revolution. President Obama’s softly, softly approach is a rationalization, not a coherent strategy. It’s the latest version of Obama’s eternal promise: I’ll do it tomorrow.

“So the mantle of leadership has passed to Capitol Hill. While Obama asked for patience yet again, Eric Cantor announced that Republicans will put entitlements on the table. It may be politically risky, but it looks more like leadership to me.”

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“Ahead of Presidents Day 2011, Americans are most likely to say Ronald Reagan was the nation’s greatest president — slightly ahead of Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton.”

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Via Greg Hengler.