Obama charts his own course

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 12:24 PM

One of the realities about President Obama is the degree to which he is a singular politician, a self-contained person who rose to power largely on the strength of his own intelligence, guile and self-confidence. He has always charted his own course - one that sometimes defied the customary or approved path - relying on himself and his own instincts rather than on others.

That explains why congressional Democrats worried all year that he was more interested in his own reelection than in theirs. It helps explain the current tension between the president and many of his fellow Democrats, whether on Capitol Hill or among liberal activists, about how to relate to the Republicans.

And it explains, at least in part, the defiant and defensive performance he delivered Tuesday as he sought to justify the deal he had just cut with Republicans to extend all the Bush tax cuts for another two years. Democrats fear he will adopt the Clinton path of triangulation, but that may not be what the president has in mind.

Obama came out of Congress but has never been a creature of Congress. He was propelled to power on the backs of countless liberal activists, but he has always been wary of attaching himself to any wing or faction of the party. As a rising candidate, he was neither overly cozy with organized labor nor too friendly with the centrists in the Democratic Leadership Council.

Contrary to popular mythology, Obama is not a part and product of the Chicago machine, though he has never really fought the machine. Nor did he prepare for his presidential campaign - as Bill Clinton did - by developing a huge network of powerful Democratic allies in Washington or across the country. Many of them Obama barely knew until he was already on his way to victory.

He has taken the route that made the most sense to him and will continue to do so. He conveyed all this clearly Tuesday. If not exactly a defining moment, his news conference was certainly a revealing moment, a lecture by the president to those he sees as the absolutists in his own party, a warning to them to give him the slack to govern in a way that he is convinced will help them all.

If he was disdainful of the Republicans with whom he cut the deal- and he was, likening them at one moment to hostage-takers ready to do harm to the middle class - he was remarkably direct with those in his party who have questioned the terms of the agreement and the strength of his spine.

Two years into his term, Obama sounded weary of the complaints leveled at him from within his own party. He objects mightily to the charge that he hasn't lived up to the promise - and promises - of his campaign. Look at all I've done, he said, as he closed out his 30-minute session. Everything I promised during the campaign I've accomplished, have tried or will continue to fight for.

He scoffed at those whom he believes brook no compromise with the Republicans. He likened their unhappiness now with the criticism he received when he managed to enact comprehensive health-care legislation. Liberals condemned him for not fighting harder for a public option. Their words still stick in his craw.

"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," he said. "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."

The tax deal is only the starting point in the new relationship between the president and the Republicans, and between the president and his depleted forces on Capitol Hill. Some Democrats fear that Obama will follow that course from here forward, a path they see as too-quick capitulation with little to show in return.

Obama argued that a quick deal came with the same terms a drawn-out negotiation would have produced. That he got help for the middle class, even if he could not prevent benefits for the wealthy.

Would he have been in a stronger position had the Democrats tried to pass their version of the tax-cut extension before the elections? Probably. It was one issue on which public opinion clearly sided with them. But they were all too risk-averse, in the estimation of some who had urged that course. They put up no fight then and now criticize when there was little option but to strike a deal as the clock ticked toward expiration of all the tax cuts.

Even some strong allies of the president believe, however, that the quick deal makes Obama look weak at a time when he needs to rebuild his image as a leader. They hope that what happened during the lame-duck session will be fleeting, little remembered six months or a year from now, especially if the economy begins to rebound dramatically.

"If the economy is growing later this year because we got more stimulus, the short game will be pretty irrelevant," said a friend of the White House, who nonetheless worries about the breach between Obama and his base.

Another Democrat who has been close to the president said Obama got more from the negotiations than Democrats credit him for, but at a significant price.

"He infuriated his base for capitulating, didn't include the Democratic leadership in the negotiations (which alienated them and will make it much harder to see to Democratic caucuses) and lost part of the high ground on fiscal responsibility with a new, trillion-dollar debt. . . . It is unfortunate that they waited this long and that it played out this way," he said.

Pollster Geoffrey Garin says Obama cannot take lightly the unrest in the Democratic Party's base, but said the deal the president struck was inevitable. "Obama's real-world choice was between frustration on the left and frustration in the middle among people who are fed up with gridlock and inaction in Washington," Garin said. "Obama's commitment to breaking through the partisan deadlock in Washington has always been a central part of his political brand, and he got disconnected from that at considerable expense over the last two years."

Obama conceded as much during his news conference, stressing that his focus is on results. In the first battle of the post-election era, he has left his party uneasy and doubtful of his convictions to their cause. That is something he will have to factor into his calculations as he moves forward. But, as always, it will be done his way.

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