All published accounts (1, 2) highlight -- because no one could miss -- the forcefulness with which he rejected false equivalence regarding the causes of his standoff with the GOP and blamed them for taking us to the brink. What I would stress is that to the extent that you can genuinely credit Obama with playing a long game, this is its locus: convincing the public that he is the reasonable one, the one willing to compromise, the one putting forth centrist, mainstream, "balanced" proposals for deficit reduction. That self-portrait is now backed by several rounds of negotiations in which he appeared (to supporters at least) to yield too much, always stressing that he was doing the best he could in the face of implacable opposition by ideological fanatics. Now, when the leverage is on his side, he has a long history backing his claim that he is not the intransigent party.
Political scientists are at pains to demonstrate to us that presidential rhetoric per se does not sway public opinion. But a president's track record does register, I think, and long-term repetition of certain themes in word and deed do sink in. Perhaps more to the point, public opinion is a potent weapon when the public is already on your side, as they essentially always have been for Obama regarding the high-end Bush tax cuts. Polls showed broad public support for the broad outlines Obama's "balanced approach" to deficit reduction in the summer of 2011, and it registered that Republicans would not budge on that front, and that Obama essentially caved in the face of the debt ceiling threat. Likewise, in the fall of 2010, Obama claimed public support for letting the Bush income tax expire for the top two brackets. Compare his language in the December 2010 press conference in which he announced the budget agreement that extended both the Bush cuts and his own middle class tax cuts, along with unemployment insurance (adding the payroll tax cut). Below, in 2010, he is challenged as to why he could not raise taxes on the top 2% (my emphasis throughout):
BEN FELLER: If I may follow up quickly, sir, you’re describing the situation you’re in right now. What about the last two years when it comes to your preferred option? Was there a failure either on the part of the Democratic leadership on the Hill or here that you couldn’t preclude these wealthier cuts from going forward?Two years later, asked once again why he cannot impose his will, he hammers the same message about Republican priorities and conduct:
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me say that on the Republican side, this is their holy grail, these tax cuts for the wealthy. This is -- seems to be their central economic doctrine. And so, unless we had 60 votes in the Senate at any given time, it would be very hard for us to move this forward. I have said that I would have liked to have seen a vote before the election. I thought this was a strong position for us to take into the election, to crystallize the positions of the two parties, because I think the Democrats have better ideas. I think our proposal to make sure that the middle class is held harmless, but that we don’t make these Bush tax cuts permanent for wealthy individuals, because it was going to cost the country at a time when we’ve got these looming deficits, that that was the better position to take. And the American people were persuaded by that.
But the fact of the matter is, I haven’t persuaded the Republican Party. I haven’t persuaded Mitch McConnell and I haven’t persuaded John Boehner. And if I can’t persuade them, then I’ve got to look at what is the best thing to do, given that reality, for the American people and for jobs.
DAVID GREGORY: What is it about you, Mr. President, that you think is so hard to say yes to?More repetition: the public is on my side. 2010:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's something you're probably going to have to ask them, because David, you follow this stuff pretty carefully. The offers that I’ve made to them have been so fair that a lot of Democrats get mad at me. I mean I offered to make some significant changes to our entitlement programs in order to reduce the deficit.
Now if we have raised some revenue by the wealthy paying a little bit more, that would be sufficient to turn off what’s called the sequester, these automatic spending cuts, and that also would have a better outcome for our economy long-term. But so far, at least, Congress has not been able to get this stuff done. Not because Democrats in Congress don’t want to go ahead and cooperate, but because I think it’s been very hard for Speaker Boehner and Republican Leader McConnell to accept the fact that taxes on the wealthiest Americans should go up a little bit, as part of an overall deficit reduction package.
Now, if there was not collateral damage, if this was just a matter of my politics or being able to persuade the American people to my side, then I would just stick to my guns, because the fact of the matter is the American people already agree with me. There are polls showing right now that the American people, for the most part, think it’s a bad idea to provide tax cuts to the wealthy.
But the issue is not me persuading the American people; they’re already there. The issue is, how do I persuade the Republicans in the Senate who are currently blocking that position. I have not been able to budge them. And I don’t think there’s any suggestion anybody in this room thinks realistically that we can budge them right now.
I negotiated with Speaker Boehner in good faith and moved more than halfway in order to achieve a grand bargain. I offered over a trillion dollars in additional spending cuts so that we would have $2 of spending cuts for every $1 of increased revenue. I think anybody objectively who's looked at this would say that we have put forward not only a sensible deal but one that has the support of the majority of the American people, including close to half of Republicans.The chip to cash in is this: I have moved and moved and moved toward the Republicans, and we have reached the point at which I have always said I can move no further. 2010:
Now, I know there are some who would have preferred a protracted political fight, even if it had meant higher taxes for all Americans, even if it had meant an end to unemployment insurance for those who are desperately looking for work.And here we are:
And I understand the desire for a fight. I’m sympathetic to that. I’m as opposed to the high-end tax cuts today as I’ve been for years. In the long run, we simply can’t afford them. And when they expire in two years, I will fight to end them, just as I suspect the Republican Party may fight to end the middle-class tax cuts that I’ve championed and that they’ve opposed (my emphasis).
DAVID GREGORY: But when they say--To drive it home once more at the close, Gregory did him the favor of making one more pass at false equivalence. In response came the full brief:
DAVID GREGORY: --leadership falls on you, Mr. President, you don't have a role here in--
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well--
DAVID GREGORY: --breaking this impasse? You've had a tough go with Congress.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: David, at a certain point if folks can't say yes to good offers, then I also have an obligation to the American people to make sure that the entire burden of deficit reduction doesn't fall on seniors who are relying on Medicare. I also have an obligation to make sure that families who rely on Medicaid to take care of a disabled child aren't carrying this burden entirely. I also have an obligation to middle class families to make sure that they're not paying higher taxes when millionaires and billionaires are not having to pay higher taxes.
There is a basic fairness that is at stake in this whole thing that the American people understand and they listened to an entire year's debate about it. They made a clear decision about the approach they prefer, which is a balanced, responsible package.
They rejected the notion that the economy grows best from the top down. They believe that the economy grows best from the middle class out. And at a certain point it is very important for Republicans in Congress to be willing to say, "We understand we're not going to get 100%. We are willing to compromise in a serious way in order to solve problems," as opposed to be worrying about the next election.
DAVID GREGORY: Mr. President, as you look forward to a second term, you think about your legacy, you think about your goals, how frustrated are you at how hard it appears to be to get some of these things done? Very difficult relationship with Congress. People come up to me all the time and say, "Don't they realize, all of them, the president, Republicans and Democrats, how frustrated we all are?"
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think we're all frustrated. The only thing I would caution against, David, is I think this notion of, "Well, both sides are just kind of unwilling to cooperate." And that's just not true. I mean if you look at the facts, what you have is a situation here where the Democratic party, warts and all, and certainly me, warts and all, have consistently done our best to try to put country first.
And to try to work with everybody involved to make sure that we've got an economy grows. Make sure that it works for everybody. Make sure that we're keeping the country safe. And does the Democratic party still have some knee jerk ideological positions and are there some folks in the Democratic party who sometimes aren't reasonable? Of course. That's true of every political party.
But generally if you look at how I've tried to govern over the last four years and how I'll continue to try to govern, I'm not driven by some ideological agenda. I am a pretty practical guy. And I just want to make sure that things work. And one of the nice things about never having another election again, I will never campaign again, is I think you can rest assured that all I care about is making sure that I leave behind an America that is stronger, more prosperous, more stable, more secure than it was when I came into office.
And that's going to continue to drive me. And I think that the issue that we're dealing with right now in the fiscal cliff is a prime example of it. What I'm arguing for are maintaining tax cuts for 98% of Americans. I don't think anybody would consider that some liberal left wing agenda. That used to be considered a pretty mainstream Republican agenda.
And it's something that we can accomplish today if we simply allow for a vote in the Senate and in the House to get it done. The fact that it's not happening is an indication of how far certain factions inside the Republican party have gone where they can't even accept what used to be considered centrist, mainstream positions on these issues.
Q.E.D. The blame for going over the cliff is going to stick to Republicans. Unless, that is, Obama, Reid & co. give up too much between now and the ball drop.