The Grown-Up in the Room

That was how President Obama attempted to appear last night: as a guy who has to make realistic choices against the crowing of idealists in the left half of his party, faced with childish stubbornness in his Republican adversaries, and, at the end of the day, responsible for taking care of people whose unemployment insurance was about to run out just in time for the holidays.

"I know there's some people in my own party and in the other party who would rather prolong this battle even if we can't reach a compromise," Obama said. "But I'm not willing to let working families in this country become collateral damage for political warfare here in Washington."

To be sure, Obama had to sell this deal. He's taken a beating from liberals over his willingness to compromise. News outlets had already reported frustration and bitterness among congressional Democrats. Activists like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's Adam Green had repeatedly slammed any potential deal to temporarily extend the upper-echelon tax cuts. Labor has stated firmly that it, too, doesn't want the high-end cuts extended. Liberal pundits had asked why he isn't the president they elected. In making this deal, Obama disappointed many of his political allies.

So, in explaining this deal to TV viewers, Obama talked extensively about the extension of unemployment benefits, the two-percent payroll tax cut, and the extensions of other tax cuts that will be included in this deal, explaining that his main concern is the economic well-being of working-class America.

"I just want everybody to remember over the course of the coming days, both Democrats and Republicans, that these are not abstract fights for the families that are impacted.  Two million people will lose their unemployment insurance at the end of this month if we don't get this resolved," Obama said.

"Millions more of Americans will see their taxes go up at a time when they can least afford it.  And my singular focus over the next year is going to be on how do we continue the momentum of the recovery, how do we make sure that we grow this economy and we create more jobs."

And he sought to portray the hard-bargaining Republicans, who control enough Senate votes to halt anything they want, as Grinches intent on stealing Christmas from the recipients of expiring unemployment-insurance checks, calling the unemployment extension "welcome relief for 2 million Americans who are facing the prospect of having this lifeline yanked away from them right in the middle of the holiday season."

How will his stated reasoning be received?

It's clear that liberals and congressional Democrats are disappointed.

PCCC's Adam Green has already summed up this deal as "presidential weakness." House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, whose home state of Michigan has been hit as hard as any by the recession, called the Bush-era extension "misguided" and promised that many Democrats will oppose such "legislative blackmail" by Republicans. Vermont Congressman Peter Welch called the deal "fiscally irresponsible" and "grossly unfair."

But the opinions of politicians and activists don't matter as much as the opinions of the public, most of whom have opposed an extension of the tax cuts on earnings above $250,000 according to major polls, meaning they would likely oppose capitulation on this policy. No one, to my knowledge, has polled on this specific tradeoff, however, so it's tough to say how Obama's handling of this situation will play with the public.

It's reasonable to expect some frustration among Democratic voters at Obama's inability to exact their favored tax-cut solution from Republican negotiators, but if the midterm elections really did send the message Obama has publicly gleaned--that the economy is the real driver of national sentiment, and that people just want someone looking out for their jobs (and unemployment benefits)--then one can expect his explanation to at least be understood. In that regard, the tax-cut compromise could be the first major test of what the 2010 midterms meant.