Obama Defends Deal, Fumes at “Sanctimonious” Left

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In his press conference this afternoon, President Obama didn’t tell us much about his tax cut deal with Republicans that we didn’t already know. But in an impassioned, even testy defense of political compromise, he did reveal his clear frustration with liberal criticism that he’s a pushover and a sellout. And he ultimately positioned himself as the grownup and protector of the public in a room full of squabbling partisans.

On the tax deal’s specifics, Obama affirmed what has become increasingly obvious as Washington chews over the details of the compromise: What Obama managed to get out of the arrangement was, in effect, a second stimulus. “This is not as significant a boost to the economy as the Recovery Act was,” Obama explained, referring to the huge January 2009 spending bill. But, he added, “This will help economic growth and this will help job growth over the next several months.” It will do that by extending unemployment insurance, various targeted tax breaks, cutting the payroll tax, and, to some degree (depending on which economists you listen to), by extending the Bush tax cuts for top-bracket income earners.

Obama said he is well aware that many liberal Democrats hate the deal and would prefer that he fight harder to block the tax cuts for high-earners. Obama said that wasn’t possible given Republican numbers in the Senate, and given that “on the Republican side this is their Holy Grail, these tax cuts for the wealthy.” Obama said that he could have mounted a symbolic fight over the tax cuts anyway. But he likened his dilemma to a hostage standoff, and “in this case the hostage was the American people… I want to make sure the American people aren’t hurt because we’re having a political fight.”

Having positioned himself as the protector of the public from Washington political games, Obama lashed out at his liberal critics with striking pique. He recalled criticism that his health care reform plan amounted to a huge disappointment because it lacked the “public option” cherished by liberals. “If that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it,” Obama said, with his voice rising and acquiring a sharp edge,

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 saying to themselves, not able to get health insurance because of pre-existing conditions, or not being able to pay their bills because 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. The New York Times editorial page does not permeate across America. Neither does the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Tough stuff–not just angry but arguably even condescending–and sure to further alienate the “professional left.” That said, it’s not news that the Obama and his aides feel this way. It is striking, however to see Obama say it with such obvious irritation.

But I doubt that Obama regrets showing a little stream. There have been multiple clues of late that the White House plans to make a political comeback for 2012 by winning back disaffected independent voters, not by rallying the Democratic base. Today’s presser was further evidence that Obama’s next two years are likely to be more Clinton and less Truman.