The ever-smiling Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi is more used to promising economic miracles than demanding sacrifices.
Now, after weeks of downplaying any risks for his country, he finds himself forced to make unpopular budget cuts to save Italy's economy, pushed by his finance minister and the EU.
While the stability of Berlusconi's two-year-old government is not at risk, the austerity measures passed this week may cost a further dip in the popularity of the Italian leader, whose once teflon support has been eroded by a relentless stream of scandals.
In a sign of frustration, and amid reports of government infighting over the (EURO)25 billion ($30 billion) cuts, Berlusconi has even lamented that he is powerless _ quoting from, of all people, the late fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
"He said, 'All I can do is tell my horse to go left or go right. That's my power,'" Berlusconi said this week during an international meeting in Paris. Still citing Mussolini, he continued: "'They say I have power. It isn't true. Maybe my party officials do.'"
Most Italian commentators agreed Friday that Berlusconi appears uneasy in dealing with the crisis.
"The feeling is that the premier _ pressed between the need for rigor and the fear of unpopularity _ is undecided," wrote financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. "It is as if Berlusconi was not entirely involved in the role that the new conjuncture has given him."
Berlusconi's approval ratings have been down in recent weeks, hurt by a corruption scandal that has forced the resignation of a Cabinet minister and by frequent bickering with the co-founder of his party, charismatic leader Gianfranco Fini.
The premier has also come under fire for alleged attempts to gag the media, as his coalition pushes through parliamentary legislation that critics say would hurt press freedom. Last year Berlusconi was engulfed in a sex scandal centering on his purported dalliances with young women. He is also a defendant in two Milan trials, though the cases _ one on corruption charges, the other on tax fraud charges _ are currently suspended.
According to a poll published just before the cuts were passed, only a minority of Italians (some 35 percent) approved of the government's . For Berlusconi himself, support was higher at around 50 percent _ not bad by the standards of other Western leaders. But still, it was a drop of 6 percentage points from February. The ISPO institute said the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
A crowd pleaser by nature, Berlusconi likes to preach optimism, often saying that pessimists never achieve anything. Over 15 years of political campaigns, the businessman-turned-politician has made countless promises to Italian citizens, from a "new Italian miracle" to 1 million new jobs.
As a man of immense wealth and an unrepentantly lavish life style, Berlusconi may also come across as an unlikely promoter of austerity. Some say he epitomizes a defiant political class that imposes belt-tightening measures on others but not on itself.
In the wake of the crisis, Berlusconi was quick to shrug off any concerns over Italy's economic outlook and blamed them on a pessimistic reading of the situation fueled by the political opposition. He insisted Italy would be able to exit without additional, painful measures.
But as Europe sought to avoid another near-default like Greece's and to convince markets that it can manage its debt load, the Italian government had to change course.
Earlier his week, the Cabinet passed an emergency decree to reduce the budget deficit to below 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2012, down from 5.3 percent in 2009. Italy's debt load tops 115 percent of gross domestic product. Berlusconi said the cuts are essential to restore confidence in the euro and necessary because Italy has been living beyond its means.
Economists and Italian industrialists praised the cuts, largely aimed at the nation's mammoth bureaucracy, though they raised concerns that the government had failed to tackle structural reforms necessary to spur long-term growth.
But reports said that Berlusconi himself was unhappy with the measures, thinking they were too rigid. The reports also said he fought with Giulio Tremonti, the finance minister who devised the package.
Both officials denied reports of clashes when they appeared at a press conference Wednesday to detail the measures. Still, Berlusconi appeared uncharacteristically low key.
"It was the classic scene of the good cop and bad cop," Italian newspaper La Stampa wrote Friday, with Berlusconi "obviously in the role of the good cop."