Obama on the Fiscal Cliff: Go Ahead, Make My Day

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The president stakes out a tough position to open negotiations on the looming set of fiscal deadlines facing Congress.

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Reuters

As President Obama took the stage in the East Room Friday afternoon to make his first statement on the fiscal negotiations that will dominate the next two months, many Democrats held their breath. His reelection secure, would Obama turn back into the conciliatory pragmatist who's so often frustrated his base? Or would he remain the aggressive class warrior he'd played on the campaign trail? It is rather amazing that, as he sets out on his second presidential term, we still don't know which one of these two characters Obama really is.

But on Friday at least, the answer was quickly revealed to be the latter. Obama, backdropped by risers full of random "real people" as props, struck a fired-up tone as he staked out his position. "If we're serious about reducing the deficit, we have to combine spending cuts with revenue," he said. "And that means asking the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more in taxes."

Over the course of his short statement, Obama hit just about every note anxious liberals were hoping for. He said he would not accept any approach that was not "balanced" between cuts and revenue. He pointed out that this is what a majority of Americans want -- nearly two-thirds, according to Tuesday's exit polls, a result supported by plenty of other polls. And he spelled out his biggest point of leverage: "If Congress fails to come to an agreement on an overall deficit-reduction package by the end of the year, everybody's taxes will automatically go up on January 1," Obama noted. To indicate his willingness to sign the right kind of bill, he held up a pen.

For those on the left, from the unions to the netroots, who want Obama to hold firm on hiking taxes on the rich, it's not yet time to exhale. They have too little faith in Obama's negotiating skills after last year's debt-ceiling negotiations, and they've seen him give in on upper-income tax cuts in the lame-duck session of 2010. Obama's counterpart in the fiscal negotiations, House Speaker John Boehner, has staked out a position just as seemingly unyielding -- that nobody's tax rates must be allowed to rise.

The question is what's a negotiating position and what's a real line in the sand. And that's what we're about to spend the next two months finding out.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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