Obama's tax cut extension part of strategy to show bipartisanship

President Barack Obama has announced a bipartisan agreement on year-end legislation to extend expiring tax cuts and renew jobless benefits as part of a sweeping attempt to strengthen the economic recovery. (Dec. 6)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 12:58 AM

Although his liberal supporters are furious about the decision, President Obama's willingness to extend all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts is part of what White House officials say is a deliberate strategy: to demonstrate his ability to compromise with Republicans and portray the president as the last reasonable man in a sharply partisan Washington.

The move is based on a political calculation, drawn from his party's midterm defeat, that places a premium on winning back independent voters.

The strategy emerged from hours of post-election meetings among senior administration officials who, after poring over returns, exit polls and midterm history, have determined that the loss of independent voters who supported Democrats in 2008 cost the party dozens of races this year. That conclusion places Obama at odds with many liberal Democrats, who say the midterm losses were the result in part of a political base dispirited by the president's penchant for compromise.

Faced with unified GOP opposition, Obama didn't get what he really wanted: the end of Bush tax cuts on household income of more than $250,000 and continuation of the rest.

Instead, he went along with emboldened Republicans to extend even the top-tier cuts for two years in exchange for unemployment insurance and other measures intended to boost the economy.

In doing so, Obama is trying to make the best of a bad situation. Administration officials now say that restoring the president's image as a post-partisan leader is more important for the next two years of his term and for his reelection effort.

That is likely to require even more compromise with Republicans in the coming months, forgoing a class-tinged debate that much of his party's base is itching to have.

"As much as the political wisdom may dictate fighting over solving problems, it would be the wrong thing to do," Obama said in announcing the tax deal Monday evening.

The president's conciliatory tack marks another shift from campaigning to governing, a transition that has proved difficult for him in the past. Behind the decision is a political fact: Unlike in the midterm elections, Obama's name will appear on the next ballot.

His advisers say the tax compromise will help protect a tentative economic recovery essential to his reelection prospects and appeal to independent voters looking for solutions rather than partisan fights. In a Pew Research Center poll taken after the elections, 59 percent of independents said Obama should work with Republican leaders, while 29 percent said he should stand up to them.

The challenge, White House officials acknowledge, will be keeping the party's base motivated through a difficult reelection campaign even as Obama works with a divided Republican Party that many think is weaker than the recent election returns suggest.

"You have to reinvent yourself to some effect, and become intensely political in the day-to-day trench warfare that will be Washington politics over the next two years," said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University historian. "But you must combine that with an appeal that recaptures some of the excitement of the 2008 campaign. The thing is, you have to do that now not [as someone] running against Hillary Clinton or for history as the first black president, but for the good of the country."

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