12/13/2010 03:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gibbs' Comments On Sanders Filibuster Show White House Toning Down Cracks At Liberal Critics

WASHINGTON -- White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded carefully Monday to the nine-hour filibuster Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) led Friday in protest of the tax-cut deal President Barack Obama struck with congressional Republicans.

Addressing the issue for the first time since the largely-ceremonial filibuster ended at 7 p.m. Friday night, Gibbs seemed to laud Sanders' philosophical point but did not endorse the senator's procedural tactic, and fell back on the administration's position that letting all the Bush-era tax cuts expire on Jan. 1 could slide the nation's economy back into recession.

"About Sanders," he said. "I think the president would be the first to agree that there are aspects of this that he doesn't like... our preferred method was to make permanent the tax cuts for the middle class. The votes weren't there in the Senate to do that. And rather than threaten our economic recovery, the president believed that this bipartisan agreement was the best way to go."

The press secretary did, however, attempt to strike a note of commiseration with Obama's more progressive critics. "He respects and understand the frustration of those who have a different viewpoint on the agreement," Gibbs said. "I think, at the same time, he believes it is important for our economy, it is important for middle class families to get [this] done."

This slight moderation in tone has been noticeable ever since Obama blasted Democrats he called "sanctimonious" for decrying the deals he's struck with Republicans on such issues as tax cuts and health care. The administration has been cautious about inflaming intra-party frictions. Instead of acting with alarm, Gibbs and others have stressed a shared frustration with the current tax-cut package.

The tone is far different from how the White House reacted when progressives wanted to "kill" the health care bill last year and senior adviser David Axelrod called such a position "insane." And it seems to be in the general spirit of what some party elders were hoping for.

"Attacking [Democratic critics] was a huge mistake by this White House," longtime strategist Paul Begala told The Huffington Post last week. "It was just unwise ... it would be much better if they were saying right now, 'I understand and respect the principles animating my critics, but here is why I think this should be passed.'"

"That would be so much better than gratuitously sticking a thumb in their eye," Begala added, "because you are going to need these folks going forward."