Obama Braces Against GOP, Democrats On Tax Deal

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President Obama is forcefully rejecting the idea that he caved to Republicans on a deal to extend Bush-era tax cuts. At a White House news conference Tuesday, he positioned himself between Republicans he calls "hostage takers" and Democrats who argue that he should have been tougher.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

President Obama sought to position himself this week in the middle of the political spectrum. He defended a deal on tax cuts for a second straight day. He said he had to deal with Republicans he called hostage-takers and he also criticized Democrats who argue that he should have been tougher in his negotiations with Republicans. That leaves at least two questions: one has to do with the politics, the other has to do with whether the tax deal will actually help the economy.

We have two stories this morning, beginning with NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: The tax cut deal that President Obama reached either shows that he can work with Republicans or that he can cave to Republicans. Mr. Obama says he had no choice.

President BARACK OBAMA: A long political fight that carried over into next year might have been good politics, but it would be a bad deal for the economy and it would be a bad deal for the American people.

SHAPIRO: He has argued for months that Republicans were holding the middle class hostage to tax cuts for the wealthy. And he embraced that metaphor again at his news conference yesterday.

President OBAMA: I think it's tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed.

SHAPIRO: The tone of the news conference was, on the whole, defensive. President Obama insisted that he got a good deal.

President OBAMA: I mean the truth of the matter is, from the Republican perspective, the earned income tax credit, the college tuition tax credit, the child tax credit, all those things that are so important for so many families across the country, those are things they really opposed.

SHAPIRO: Those explanations did not stop an onslaught of attacks from activists and lawmakers on the left.

Mr. JOHN ARAVOSIS (Americablog): It's not a negotiation when the other side sticks to their guns and you keep whittling, whittling, whittling, and moving back on what it is that you want.

SHAPIRO: John Aravosis is editor and founder of the website Americablog.

Mr. ARAVOSIS: You know, the president likes to say oh my god, we couldn't cut off unemployment benefits for millions of Americans. That's right, we couldn't, and you really think the Republicans would have cut them off right before Christmas? Really?

SHAPIRO: President Obama says yes, they would have. He framed liberal activists like Aravosis as pie-in-the-sky idealists. This country was founded on compromise, he said.

President OBAMA: I couldn't go through the front door at this country's founding. And you know, if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn't have a union. So my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there, what is helping the American people live out their lives.

SHAPIRO: This reminds Jack Howard of his experience during the first Bush administration. Howard was the White House's liaison to Congress when President Bush enraged his fellow Republicans by raising taxes. He says the backlash was ferocious.

Mr. JACK HOWARD (Wexler and Walker Public Policy): It went on for a long time, it got very personal, it got very bitter...

SHAPIRO: And what were the long-term consequences of that?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, our negotiating ability and our leverage from then on was all kind of in the context of, yeah, but you guys went and raised taxes, so how do we know you're not going to try to cut the legs out from us on this next one?

SHAPIRO: This may not be such a turning point for President Obama's relationship with Democrats. President Bush had violated his read my lips, no new taxes promise, and this president is not reneging on such a key campaign principle. Moderate Democrats prefer to compare this moment to the 1990s, when President Clinton triangulated by moving to the center after Republicans took over Congress.

Jim Kessler is vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic group, Third Way.

Mr. JIM KESSLER (Vice President, Third Way): If the president wants to control the agenda and have any chance of getting reelected in 2012, he's going to have to own the center of the electorate. And after his first two years, he did not own that center.

SHAPIRO: He thinks fair-minded Democrats have started coming around to this tax deal now that they've had a chance to look at it more closely.

Mr. KESLER: It's sort of like the situation in sports where you traded away your - one of your favorite players and you're really upset and then you look underneath and you say, well, we got some pretty decent players in return.

SHAPIRO: Republicans and Democrats say President Obama could help himself by improving relationships with Congress. Indeed, last week, the president said he'd like to invite congressional leaders to Camp David. And Monday night, members of Congress visited the White House for a Christmas party. But at the beginning of the party, while the lawmakers were admiring the White House Christmas decorations, President Obama was next door announcing the tax deal to reporters.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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