TRANSCRIPT of Dec 6 press conference: Well, look, I’ve got a whole bunch of lines in the sand. Not making the tax cuts for the wealthy permanent — that was a line in the sand. Making sure that the things that most impact middle-class families and low-income families, that those were preserved — that was a line in the sand. I would not have agreed to a deal, which, by the way, some in Congress were talking about, of just a two-year extension on the Bush tax cuts and one year of unemployment insurance, but meanwhile all the other provisions, the Earned Income Tax Credit or other important breaks for middle-class families like the college tax credit, that those had gone away just because they had Obama’s name attached to them instead of Bush’s name attached to them.
So this notion that somehow we are willing to compromise too much reminds me of the debate that we had during health care. This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.
Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.
That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat. This is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. The New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America. Neither does The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Most Americans, they’re just trying to figure out how to go about their lives and how can we make sure that our elected officials are looking out for us. And that means because it’s a big, diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done, we’re going to compromise. This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew.
Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal. This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding. And 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? What is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? What is making us more competitive? And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done.
And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight — not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term?
And I don’t think there’s a single Democrat out there, who if they looked at where we started when I came into office and look at where we are now, would say that somehow we have not moved in the direction that I promised.
Take a tally. Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.
And so the — to my Democratic friends, what I’d suggest is, let’s make sure that we understand this is a long game. This is not a short game. And to my Republican friends, I would suggest — I think this is a good agreement, because I know that they’re swallowing some things that they don’t like as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing them on the field of competition over the next two years.
Paul Krugman comments:
The Sorrow And The Self-Pity: There is a case for the tax cut deal, as the best of a very bad situation. But Obama did not help that case yesterday by lashing out at “purists”. Leave aside the merits for a moment: what possible purpose does this kind of lashing out serve? Will activists be shamed into recovering their previous enthusiasm? Will Republicans stop their vicious attacks because Obama is lashing out to his left? It was pure self-indulgence; even if he feels aggrieved, he has to judge his words by their usefulness, not by his desire to vent. This isn’t about him. And beyond that, who are these purists? Yes, a few people on the left refused to support health reform over the lack of a public option — but not many. To the extent that Obama has had trouble selling that plan, “purists” weren’t a factor; his own lack of effective messaging was.
On taxes: there might be more forgiveness now if Obama had shown any sign of fighting before now. A new article by Noam Scheiber confirms the impression I and others had that the administration really didn’t push Congress to take up the issue:
Within the administration, the split over whether to mount a tax-cut offensive broke down largely along wonk-operative lines. The wonks spent the last year mystified that the White House was ducking the fight when the substantive merits were so one-sided. The operatives brooded that the politics could abruptly turn against them, despite polling showing little public appetite for the upper-income cuts. “They view it through the class warfare stuff—Kerry in 2004, Gore in 2000,” says one administration official. “They worry that they’ll get painted as lefties, tax-raisers.”
Let me add that Obama has never, as far as I can recall, pointed out that these horrible tax increases on the rich the GOP warns about would bring rates back to what they were under Bill Clinton — a time of enormous prosperity. But then, Obama has always had a weirdly hard time making the case that the Clinton economy refuted Reaganism. Add in the White House’s repeated validations of the right-wing position on the evils of public spending, from the spending freeze to the pay freeze, the appointment of a conservative Democrat and a paleo-conservative Republican to head the debt commission, etc. — and now Obama expects trust and praise from progressives?
What’s particularly striking is that Obama seems passionate about denouncing his progressive critics, even as he has nice words for the people who have spent two years trying to destroy him.
So look: there’s a policy issue here, and it’s a tough one; you trade off the stimulus Obama extracted now for the increased likelihood that low taxes for the rich will be made permanent, crippling policy for decades to come. But there’s also a character issue: what we really don’t need right now is a president who blames everyone but himself, and seems more concerned with self-justification than with sustaining the alliances he needs.