Is Obama Finally Getting His Groove Back?

What the battle over the payroll tax cut reveals about Obama's evolution as a leader

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President and Michelle Obama’s Christmas message was about keeping families whole: military families reuniting after months apart, ordinary families trying to make ends meet. It’s a theme that resonates for Obama because he came from two broken homes. In the video, he again played the traditional presidential role of father-in-chief. But it wasn’t until after the taping that he grasped one of the key lessons of parenthood, something that has eluded him for much of his presidency: firm limit-setting is necessary to help a family knit itself together and grow.

(MORE: Frank: Has Obama Had a Psychological Breakthrough?)

Obama finally managed to wrestle a bickering, childishly self-interested Congress into line and won a protracted battle for the passage of a payroll tax cut. The audacity of hope became real and palpable when Obama achieved the bipartisanship he had idealized and hoped for since his 2009 Inauguration: a Senate vote of 89-11 and a House voice vote with no objections to the Senate bill.

How did he do this? First, his plea that the more fortunate among us reach out to those who are struggling was loud, clear and consistent. He continued to insist that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers — that a hard-working middle class needs government support in order to survive and grow. He never wavered, though the length of that tax cut shrank from one year to two months. Second, he got Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to “man up” along with him and strike the best deal he could get in the Senate. Third, he was psychologically ready to remain steadfast in his message.

Several factors converged, helping him evolve into the transformative leader his supporters thought they elected in 2008: the two most obvious were the familiar pressure of needing a last-minute jump shot to save the day and the anticipation of the 2012 election. But two other things happened: President Obama opened his heart to the pain and suffering of fellow Americans by asking them to write to him what a cut of $40 per paycheck would mean to them; and he asked for help — beyond asking for campaign contributions — that enabled him to stand up to schoolyard (read Tea Party) bullies.

For the previous three years of his presidency, Obama had compromised with himself first, in order to gain acceptance from the opposition. While this approach eventually got health care passed, it did so only after acquiescing to the bullying insurance companies and Big Pharma, which completely eliminated a public option while watering down what was left — a battered bipartisanship at best.

Since his childhood, Obama’s deepest yearnings were to have his own intact family with predictably reliable parents; his deepest yearning as our president has been to bring that possibility to the larger American “family.” What he has begun to realize is that setting limits is necessary for a family to grow — and this is not just criticizing what he called “lazy” parents for letting the kids watch TV rather than helping them with their studies. He found that it was impossible to have even the possibility of family when some of its members refused to participate at all. He realized that limiting impulsive and destructive behavior is fundamental to family survival and development.

(MORE: Frank: Why Obama Can’t Embrace Occupy Wall Street)

Psychological growth comes slowly and is often imperceptible to those who are intimately involved. Thus Obama’s critics from the left remain wary: is this just another example of compromise — of going from one year to two months, not to mention adding a deadline for the Keystone Pipeline decision? I think he is moving in a new direction when he said clearly that the time for playing games was over. He made it clear that this was about the lifeblood of our country, and that posturing and John Boehner’s gamesmanship were no longer acceptable.

A recent nationally syndicated editorial cartoon echoed Obama’s message: The average American stands at the “returns and exchanges” desk at a store, carrying a lamp whose base is an elephant and donkey biting each other’s heads off. The caption reads, “I was hoping for something a little less partisan.” President Obama is beginning to recognize that firm limits — and not simply self-compromise or attempts at reasoning together — are necessary for that to happen.

What he may be discovering as well is that when he stands firm, the people who elected him — as well as the Democratic Party itself — will follow.