With Reporting From Ryan Grim
WASHINGTON -- Taking the lectern in the James Brady briefing room for an impromptu news conference on Tuesday afternoon, President Obama offered a defiant defense of his decision to strike a deal to extend the expiring Bush tax cuts.
It was a president piqued, lashing out at Republicans for holding the middle class hostage, for worshiping the "holy grail" of trickle-down economics, and for using procedural maneuvers to hijack a serious economic policy debate.
"I've said before that I felt that the middle-class tax cuts were being held hostage to the high-end tax cuts," Obama said of the reasoning behind his capitulation. "I think it's tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed."
And then there were the equally brutish swipes he took at disaffected Democrats, demanding that his own party members stop insisting that he hadn't laid out priorities or made progress on his promises.
This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats have been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn't get that would have affected maybe a couple million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people, and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.
Now, if that's the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let's face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of a preexisting condition. Or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.
That can't be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can't be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat. This is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. Now, the New York Times editorial page does not permeate all across America. Neither does the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Most Americans, they're just trying to figure out how to go about their lives and how can we make sure that our elected officials are looking out for us.
But if the president was still, as he insisted, "itching for a fight on a whole range of issues," it seemed readily apparent to others that he had already missed the battle. The emotive, even bold talk Obama offered on Tuesday was what party members have been demanding for weeks if not months. Few could doubt that the president still thinks extending tax rates for the wealthy is bad politics and policy. Nor can the measures the White House won in return -- a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits, more than $150 billion in tax credits benefiting families and low income workers -- be easily dismissed. But what seemed clear, to most observers anyway, was that Obama is more willing to compromise than some of his Democratic colleagues.
"I have not been able to budge them," said Obama. "And I don't think there's any suggestion anybody in this room thinks, realistically, that we can budge them right now. And in the meantime there are a whole bunch of people being hurt. And the economy would be damaged. And my first job is to make sure the economy is growing, that we're creating jobs out there, and that people who are struggling are getting some relief."
As Obama was speaking, the basic makeup of the tax deal was coming under attack. Democrats on the Hill, streaming into a Senate caucus meeting with Vice President Biden, promised to alter the effort. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), one of the more conservative members in the caucus, called it "almost morally corrupt."
"I'm gonna study it, but right now I'm opposed to it," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
"At this point in time, I don't like what I see," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)
"I will do everything in my power to stand up for the American middle class and defeat this agreement," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
"I will support President Obama when he is right and oppose the President when he is wrong," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). " I feel the President is wrong to make this deal."
The union conglomerate, the AFL-CIO, meanwhile, came out in opposition to the measure despite a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits. And while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) predicted that a "vast majority of my members will be supporting it" the question was whether those numbers would be there if the package is changed.