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By Jay Cost

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What Does Obama Do Now?

Presidents make political mistakes. Every last one of them. This is an inevitability. It is a rule of political life in the United States of America.

Barack Obama has made some mistakes in the last year. He misjudged the mood of the country. He misjudged the capacity of Congress to legislate with a decent respect for the national interest. He misjudged the extent of the recession - how it would affect unemployment and ultimately the public consciousness.

Tonight's result in Massachusetts is the first price he pays for his political mistakes. It will not be the last. Republicans may or may not take back the House of Representatives next year, but they are set to make big gains in the lower chamber. Only the hardiest of Democratic partisans doubt this, and even they are starting to come around.

No President is beyond making such miscalculations. Many great men have made substantially worse judgments. Thomas Jefferson pursued a short-sighted foreign policy that damaged American interests in a futile attempt to punish Britain and France. James Madison - the father of the Constitution - put the nation into the War of 1812, something for which it was grossly underprepared. Abraham Lincoln tolerated incompetent generals for too long, doubting his instincts and giving only meek exhortations to confront the enemy more aggressively. Franklin Roosevelt thought his landslide reelection in 1936 gave him leave to reshape the Supreme Court and purge his party of dissenters. These were great men to whom we have rightly built stately and impressive monuments. But they were still men, and they made big mistakes.

The real test of a President's mettle is not whether he makes mistakes, or falls into traps of his own making. Again, that's inevitable. Instead, the test of a President is how he handles the jam once he has gotten himself into it. Does he continue to do the same thing, hoping against hope that somehow, someway doing the same-old same-old will yield a different result? Or does he recognize that he has made mistakes, try to learn from them, and ultimately make adaptations? That's the mark of a superior political talent.

Frankly, I don't know what Obama will do next. His political biography is so slender that none of us really do. Looking back on Bill Clinton's remarkable comeback in 1995-96, none of us should have been very surprised. He pulled off exactly the same feat several times before - bouncing back from losing his reelection bid for Arkansas governor in 1980, then bouncing back after scandal during the 1992 primary. But Obama is a mystery, though he has written two autobiographies about himself.

Democrats should hope that he makes adjustments, that the latest bluster from the White House is just that. Politico reports one senior advisor as saying, "This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt. It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard." Democrats should hope that this is just aggressive talk designed to buy the White House time to figure out what to do next. If the President really thinks this, they are going to be in a mess of trouble for the rest of his term, for it would mean that he's too stubborn or arrogant to make needed adjustments. It would mean that a comparison to Jimmy Carter is more apt than a comparison to Franklin Roosevelt.

Frankly, all of us should hope that this is just bluster from a typically blustery White House. Barack Obama is going to hold his office for the next three years regardless of whatever happens in congressional elections in November, regardless of how well he governs, regardless of where his job approval numbers go. Let's hope that this untested, young, inexperienced fellow the country elevated to the highest office in the land has the good sense to recognize the message the Bay State sent last night, to understand that messages of similar intensity will be sent in November, and to direct his staff to make necessary changes.

Watch Obama carefully for the next few weeks. How does he react to this Senate defeat? What does he do about health care? Does his message shop change its typically aggressive posture? Answers to these questions are going to teach us a lot about the still-mysterious person who currently holds the office of President of the United States.

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-Jay Cost