Just as President Obama's appearance before the House Republican caucus last Friday gave him an opportunity to push back against some of the most outlandish conservative caricatures of his presidency, his visit with Senate Democrats on Wednesday morning allowed him to confront, head on and in public, the timidity and centrism from within his own party.
"There was apparently a headline after the Massachusetts election," Obama declared during the morning meeting, to which cameras were allowed access. "The Village Voice announced that Republicans win a 41-59 majority. It's worth thinking about. We still have to lead."
In one key exchange this morning, Obama rebuked pleas from Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) that he moderate his agenda and work with Republicans to ease the current state of economic uncertainty.
Lincoln described a constituent who she said was "extremely frustrated because there was a lack of certainty and predictability from his government for him to be able to run his businesses."
She asked: "Are we willing, as Democrats, not only to reach out to Republicans, but to push back in our own party for people who want extremes, and look for the common ground that's going to get us the success that we need not only for our constituents, but for our country, in this global community, in this global economy?"
"Look," said Obama, "there's no doubt that this past year's been an uncertain time for the American people, for businesses and for people employed by businesses. Some of that uncertainty just had to do with the objective reality of this economy entering into a free fall...
"Let's remind ourselves that if you've got an economy suddenly contracting by 6 percent or a loss of trillions of dollars of wealth basically in the blink of an eye, where home values are descending by 20 percent, that that's going to create a whole lot of uncertainty out there, in the business environment and among families. ...
"And part of what we've done, over the course of this year, is to put a floor under people's feet. That's what the Recovery Act did."
From there, Obama turned to a more pointed critique of Lincoln's argument. "If the price of certainty is essentially for us to adopt the exact same proposals that were in place for eight years leading up to the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression -- we don't tinker with health care, let the insurance companies do what they want, we don't put in place any insurance reforms, we don't mess with the banks, let them keep on doing what they're doing now because we don't want to stir up Wall Street -- the result is going to be the same," he said. "I don't know why we would expect a different outcome pursuing the exact same policy that got us into this fix in the first place."
Middle class Americans, Obama said, "are more and more vulnerable, and they have been for the last decade, treading water. And if our response ends up being, you know, because we don't want to -- we don't want to stir things up here, we're just going to do the same thing that was being done before, then I don't know what differentiates us from the other guys. And I don't know why people would say, boy, we really want to make sure that those Democrats are in Washington fighting for us."
This is the type of argument from Obama that a lot of Democrats, and not just progressives, have longed to hear. While a united Republican opposition has clearly slowed down his legislative agenda, it has been the conservative Democrats in the Senate who have punctured enormous holes in it.
The White House has largely coddled these four or five Senators, at least in public, in hopes of gradually winning over their support. The White House declined to criticize Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) for holding up health care reform over a public option --- even while lashing out at former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean when he said the bill should be stopped because it lacked the public plan.
This was the first sign that Obama might be willing to call out those in his party who think that watering down his administration's platform makes for smart politics and policy.