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Is President Barack Obama's duty to hear the voices of the entire country, or is it to heed the entreaties of his allies on the left and in the Democratic Party?

That is one of the simplest, and also one of the most complex, questions of our time. To ask it is to please conservatives who argue that Obama consistently ignores their impulses and ideas. To answer it pleases liberals who want to believe that their impulses and ideas are squarely in the national interest.

As a nation, the American people select only two officeholders, the president and the vice president. These are the only officials who represent the entire country, the only two whose remit is the national interest. Senators have home states to speak for, House members have districts, and among them they act for interests rural or urban, industrial or agricultural.

In reality, the principle of national representation in the presidency is honored only in the breach, and usually briefly.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke for the whole country in his "fear itself" inaugural address and, given the magnitude of the economic crisis, probably in the first hundred days of his administration. But as the New Deal turned left, FDR increasingly spoke a language congenial to liberals, which is why he sometimes was considered a traitor to his own class.

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush spoke for the nation, but as the shock of the terrorist attacks wore off he was vulnerable to criticism that he had become the servant of conservative and business interests and the enemy of civil liberties.

Obama came to office on a flood of hopes for racial reconciliation and on a jet stream of rhetoric about changing the way Washington works by creating a post-partisan political system. But his early priority, along with an economic stimulus, was a comprehensive overhaul of the health care system — an issue arguably more important to Democratic activists than to Obama as a state senator and U.S. senator.

Much of the president's past year has been spent in going it alone, especially in recent weeks as he has refined his immigration initiative. That tactic will be substantially more appealing, and substantially more difficult, in January, when the new Congress with its twin Republican majorities are seated.

Perhaps that is why he was so fulsome in his praise of the flawed but efficient spending agreement sculpted on Capitol Hill earlier this month. Listen to his comment as the measure neared completion:

"This by definition was a compromise bill. This is what is produced when you have a divided government that the American people voted for. Had I been able to draft my own legislation, get it passed without any Republican votes, I suspect it would be slightly different."

Perhaps combatants of both parties, and the president himself, might review Obama's first inaugural address, delivered in 2009. In those remarks, the new president — then still full of hope, then still with the capacity to make his rivals shake in fear — said, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world."

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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