GUY RAZ, host:
The White House is discovering it's not so easy to part ways with your own party, especially right after a bruising electoral defeat. Some are calling the president's tax deal an example of triangulation.
As NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, there are pluses and minuses for President Obama in staking out a position between the two parties.
MARA LIASSON: In his press conference this week, President Obama aimed his harshest rhetoric at the Republicans. They were hostage-takers with a gun to the head of middle-class taxpayers, but, as you just heard, he also described those Democrats who were willing to risk tax hikes for the middle class as sanctimonious and purist.
Since the midterm elections, former Clinton aide Chris Lehane has been wondering whether Mr. Obama intended to move to the center and triangulate, like President Clinton, or hunker down on the left, like Harry Truman.
Mr. CHRIS LEHANE (Political Consultant): He chose the triangulation path. But, you know, I think the distinction here is that Truman and Clinton, each different tact worked for both of those individuals because they ultimately knew where they were going. They had a governing philosophy behind it. The public knew where they ultimately wanted to go.
LIASSON: Lehane says that's President Obama's real problem, not whether he's moving left or right.
Mr. LEHANE: And for this president, I just don't think the public has necessarily picked up on what that governing philosophy is, so each of these decisions that he faces becomes these one-off moments, and the public really doesn't understand what's ultimately behind the decision-making.
LIASSON: Democrats in the House certainly don't. Right now, they and the White House look like they're in a bad marriage. House Democrats are furious over the extension of tax breaks for the wealthy. They also feel cut out of negotiations between the White House and the Republicans.
White House aides deny they have a conscious political strategy to triangulate, and President Obama has often said he won't use his liberal base as a foil just to prove he's in the center. But it's also true that the president's advisers don't think they have a problem with their base. Instead, they feel they need to work harder to get independent voters back on the president's side.
Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg says the president has to do both.
Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG (President, New Democrat Network): The cruel math of presidential politics is that a lot more people who voted for the president were Democrats than were independents. It's going to be, you know, as important keeping the Democrats happy who voted for him as it is, you know, shoring up some weakness with independents. He's got to do both. There's not a choice here.
LIASSON: The White House has tried furiously over the last two days to convince their own troops that, dollar for dollar, they got more in the tax-cut deal than the Republicans did.
But some supporters of the president, even those who agree this is the best deal he could have gotten, are wondering whether this is the model for the new balance of power in Washington, where the president is unable to control the debate.
Mr. JOHN PODESTA (President And CEO, Center for American Progress): That's what keeping me up at night.
LIASSON: That's John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton. He says there will be plenty of traps ahead.
Mr. PODESTA: In this particular circumstance, I think he made a tough choice but the right choice. The Republicans are going to try to repeat this over and over and over again. So he's going to have to anticipate that, not get caught in this circumstance where you really are left with very few or no choices, and prepare the public and prepare the battleground to win those fights.
And this, says Podesta, is at the heart of congressional Democrats angst. Whether it's the coming showdown over the debt limit or the epic battle about to begin over the budget and the deficit, Podesta says Democrats are not sure the president is willing to have those fights or able to define them on his own terms.
Mr. PODESTA: They're looking into 2011 and 2012, and all they see is fog. They don't see a clear plan of where the priorities are going to be, what investments need to be made. They see fog. There needs to be clarity.
And I think that the president has the chance in the State of the Union to reset the table, to provide that clarity, to draw the right lines that the American public can understand so that there's a clear choice.
LIASSON: But President Obama says, in effect, not to worry. As he said on Tuesday, he has plenty of lines in the sand.
President BARACK OBAMA: I will be happy to see the Republicans test whether or not I'm itching for a fight on a whole range of issues. I suspect they will find I am.
LIASSON: The problem is, right now, his own party in Congress isn't sure he'll pass that test.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.