At his press conference this week, President Obama aimed his harshest rhetoric at Republicans -- likening them to hostage-takers with a gun to the head of middle-class taxpayers. But he also described those Democrats who were willing to risk tax hikes for the middle class as "sanctimonious" and "purist."
Since the midterm elections, Chris Lehane, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, had been wondering whether Obama intended to move to the center and triangulate between the two parties, like Clinton did, or hunker down on the left, like President Harry Truman did.
Lehane he says he got his answer.
"He chose the triangulation path," Lehane says. "But ... the distinction here is that Truman and Clinton -- each different path 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."
Lehane says that's Obama's real problem -- not whether he's moving left or right.
"For this president, I just don't think the public has necessarily picked up on what that governing philosophy is," he says, "so each of these decisions he faces becomes these one-off moments, and the public really doesn't understand what's ultimately behind the decision-making."
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 a deal to extend tax breaks for the wealthy, and they feel cut out of the negotiations between the White House and the Republicans.
Falling Into A Trap?
White House aides deny they have a conscious political strategy to triangulate, and 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.
"The cruel math of presidential politics is that a lot more people who voted for the president were Democrats than were independents," he says. "It's going to be ... as important keeping the Democrats happy who voted for him as it is shoring up some weakness in independents. He's got to do both -- there's not a choice here."
The White House has tried furiously over the past two days to convince its 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.
"That's what's keeping me up at night," says John Podesta, former chief of staff to Clinton.
Willing To Fight?
Podesta says there will be plenty of traps ahead.
"In this particular circumstance, I think he made a tough choice but the right choice," he says. "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 the circumstance where you really are left with very few or no choices and ... prepare the public and prepare the battleground to win those fights."
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.
"They're looking into 2011 and 2012, and all they see is fog," he says. "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."
But Obama says, in effect, not to worry. As he said on Tuesday, he has plenty of lines in the sand.
"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," he said.
The problem is that, right now, his own party in Congress isn't sure he'll pass that test.