WASHINGTON—What does President Obama think of those who fought and bled to pass his bills in Congress (in some cases losing in this year's election for their pains) while also defending him against wild charges from the right wing? Are they among the liberals he described as "sanctimonious" who long for the "satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people"?
Obama's comments make you wonder: Who does he think he can count on when conservatives try to repeal the health care law, force cuts in programs he supports, investigate his administration down to the last pencil, and continue to denounce him as an un-American socialist?
A senior Obama lieutenant insisted that the president wasn't attacking liberals. He was responding only to those condemning him as a "sellout" for a tax deal that achieves many progressive goals, at the cost of extending tax cuts for the wealthy and egregiously conceding billions to very rich people who inherit large estates.
Yet simultaneously, the White House was also sending out signals that it was consciously casting the president as a centrist problem-solver in a new iteration of Bill Clinton's old "triangulation" strategy.
This would suggest that Obama is perfectly happy to see liberals publicly furious, and happier still that some right-wing Republican politicians and groups, notably Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and the Club for Growth, came out against the tax deal, too. There's nothing like occupying the lofty heights of moderation, especially where Washington conventional wisdom is concerned.
What's most striking about Obama's deal with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is the extent to which it only reinforces Obama's image as an inside technocratic deal-maker. It turns out he will negotiate with anyone to get what seems sensible to him.
The problem is that this approach shortchanges the need to carry on a sustained argument on behalf of his overall objectives and rejects the idea that some "fights," a word Obama uses with disdain (except, perhaps, when he's criticizing liberals), are instructive and can help accomplish change over the long term.
In the short term, Obama did get more than most liberals expected. It is good news that he's focused on the need to give the economy another jolt, even if some of the measures the accord includes are not very stimulative.
The rest of the package delivers tangible benefits to the unemployed and to lower- and middle-income taxpayers. For roughly $100 billion to the rich, Obama got $197 billion in benefits he sought for the non-rich, $146 billion in business tax cuts to push job creation, plus an extension of the $280 billion middle-class tax cut. Many Democrats insist the Republicans would have eventually given in on relief for the middle class; the administration is not so sure.
These substantial concessions have led many liberal policy leaders—among them, Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, John Podesta of the Center for American Progress and Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute—to support the deal, partly on the theory that any next deal would be worse. Other liberals would go along if the estate tax cut could be made less munificent.
And at least these negotiations have had the benefit of proving conclusively that the only people for whom conservative Republicans will go to the mat are the country's best-off citizens—and deficits be damned.
But in the long run, is Obama capable of winning the future battles with the Republicans that this temporary agreement sets up? By expanding the deficit, it will make it easier for the Republicans to push sharp cuts in all manner of domestic programs, including Medicare and Social Security. This accord will not stop Republicans from expounding regularly on "the Obama deficit," or from trying to box him in again on the tax cuts.
One House Democrat, who because he respects Obama asked not to be named, offered an unexpected case for the package that tells the president how much ground he has to make up with those who were once his most fervent supporters.
"If I thought they were ready to go 12 rounds on this next year, I'd kill it in a heartbeat," he said of the administration. "But if they're going to keep leaving the ring after the first punch, this is the best alternative we've got to keep this recovery going and helping those who are hurting the most." There was no sanctimony or purism here, just a sober and melancholy realism.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group
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