West Wing Briefing

Despite tax-cut deal, Obama says he will still take on GOP

President Barack Obama says a deal he has struck with congressional Republicans on renewing Bush era tax cuts keeps his 2008 promise to protect the American middle class from an increase in tax rates.
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 9:32 AM

Even as he scolded liberals and tried to woo moderates in a news conference Tuesday, President Obama also said he would take on Republicans aggressively over the next two years.

His comparison of the GOP to "hostage takers" drew headlines, but the 32-minute appearance was actually filled with Obama declaring his eagerness to debate his differences with the newly empowered GOP, while acknowledging he couldn't win the tax cut argument this month.

"I will be happy to see the Republicans test whether or not I'm itching for a fight on a whole range of issues," he said. "I suspect they will find I am."

He added, "I'm looking forward to seeing them on the field of competition over the next two years."

His tone and the parameters of the deal on tax cuts that Obama reached with the GOP suggest the next stage of his presidency may involve a different approach to both governing and rhetoric. For much of the past two years, Obama spoke in bipartisan terms, but generally pushed his agenda through Congress almost exclusively with Democratic votes.

Now, he may be forced to compromise with the GOP often on issues, even as he slams them with sharp rhetorical blasts along with way.

'Hostage takers' and 'sanctimonious'

The news conference was notable for Obama describing his liberal opponents as "sanctimonious" for constantly saying he does not push hard enough for progressive goals, as well as his likening Republicans to "hostage takers" because they would not back an agreement for tax cuts for middle-class Americans unless it also included tax cuts for upper-income people.

But surprisingly, neither remark drew much criticism. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the incoming House majority leader, told CNN, "I don't think those kinds of comments were helpful." But the soon-to-be House speaker, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said of the hostage remark, "I didn't hear it."

Beyond Cantor, few Republicans on Capitol Hill have condemned Obama's unflattering description of them.

Meanwhile, on the left, Obama's liberal critics in Congress have not returned fire after he accused them of constantly adopting a "purist position" and of being unrealistic.

At the same time, Obama's 32 minutes at the podium didn't suddenly excite liberals about the tax deal.

Asked on MSNBC "if he changed your mind at all," Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a vocal critic of the agreement, replied, "Not at all."

"What we're looking at is a real moral outrage where Republicans are telling us that we have got to give huge tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires in order to get an extension of tax breaks for the middle class and unemployment compensation for 2 million unemployed workers," said Sanders. "That is outrageous. We can and must fight for an agreement that's a lot better than that."

And off Capitol Hill, Obama faced sharp criticism both for the deal and his words on Tuesday.

"We shouldn't have gotten you angry at your news conference today and made all the moderate Democrats wonder why in the hell you get publicly angry so often at the liberals who campaigned for you and whether you might save just a touch of that sarcasm and that self-martyrdom for the Republicans," MSNBC talk show host Keith Olbermann said sarcastically Tuesday night.

He added, "It is not disloyalty to the Democratic party to tell a Democratic president he is wrong; it is not disloyalty to tell him he is goddamned wrong."

Defending the tax deal

Obama isn't officially speaking about the tax agreement Wednesday. But he's talking to reporters after his meeting with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and again after a session with his Cabinet. So he is likely to be asked to respond to continued criticism of the deal.

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