Obama's Most Interesting Press Conference


I found Obama's press conference Tuesday afternoon on the tax deal with Republicans absolutely fascinating. We were treated to two Obamas for the price of one (three Obamas, if you count yesterday's announcement; see previous post). The Great Question confronting him in the remainder of his first term was vividly clear.

Monday, you recall, he set out to defend the tax deal as an honorable compromise and a victory for common sense--which in my view it is. He also put himself above the partisan fray, in a way that was bound to offend many Democrats. But he did this very tepidly. Tuesday, especially in response to questions, he was much more animated and forceful. The problem was, he forcefully defended not one but two rationales for what he has done--rationales that are at least in tension and in the end, I think, irreconcilable.

The first was addressed to liberal Democrats, and very different from Monday 's message. He said, in effect, that Republicans are incapable of compromise or seeing reason. This time, and this time only, he had been forced to surrender to their threats to harm the American people, because he had no choice. Republicans had taken the American people hostage, he said, and sometimes, much as you may detest it, you have to do business with hostage-takers. Agreeing to this deal was a necessary evil, and not a habit he intended to get into. The public does not want this deal, he emphasized; he had already won that argument, and the Republicans had lost. But what can you do with these people? Rest assured it won't happen again. Bring on the new Congress and the next debates. You'll see how tough, uncompromising, and unyieldingly partisan I can be.

Then, while I was still comparing this Obama with Monday's, he swerved all the way to the other position and beyond. (Pick up the video at about 27 minutes in...after, "This is the public option debate all over again.") Now he's defending compromise as the right way to proceed in general, not just in the unique circumstances of the tax-deal. Politics is the art of the possible; don't make the best the enemy of the good; and all that. Otherwise:

People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position--and no victories for the American people... 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 across all of America...neither does the Wall Street Journal editorial page... And that means...in order to get stuff done, you have to compromise. This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans... This country was founded on compromise... If we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn't have a union.

Good Lord. One minute, he's reassuring progressives. We are good and they are evil. It's victims and hostage-takers, no less. Just be patient, our time will come, and accounts with the enemy will be settled. Next minute, he's rebuking the same progressives. Spare me your sanctimonious purism. It's un-American. We have good-faith differences of opinion. "This country was founded on compromise."

Well, I suppose you could say these are mere differences of emphasis, but that is not how they strike me. They suggest radically different approaches to politics, and here is the crux of the problem. Obama has been vacillating between the two since 2008--but never before, that I have seen, from the same podium within the space of five minutes. As you know I prefer the consensus-seeking Obama, but the main thing is that the man is going to have to make up his mind. He cannot please both the progressive wing of his party and the middle of the electorate, though he can easily disappoint both.

What is it about this he finds so hard to understand?

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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