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For Obama, the center may be too far right

The Take
Saturday, December 18, 2010; A04

A month ago, President Obama was the big loser of 2010, the leader whose party had given up historic losses in the House and who was facing questions about his future. On Friday, with the stroke of his pen on a compromise tax bill, he reminded his adversaries of the essential resilience of the occupant of the Oval Office.

Whether the compromise proves to be a moment of bipartisanship or the beginning of a turnaround in Obama's political fortunes won't be known until well into next year. But if he can find the formula that allows him to deal when he can and fight when he must, his prospects for true revival could greatly improve.

What seems clear is that Obama has begun to position himself back on more comfortable ground in the wake of the self-described shellacking Democrats took in the midterm elections. By instinct and demeanor, he is a politician who prefers finding common ground with his opponents. At a moment of political weakness, the tax package provided him the vehicle to quickly reassert that part of his political personality at a time when he needed the public to take a fresh look at him.

The deal is also a reminder that, despite unrest in his party's base over the agreement, the Obama White House recognizes that the 2012 election will be won or lost with independent voters, who prize results and prefer to see Republicans and Democrats working constructively. Nearly every calculation the president makes in the coming months will be with that compass in hand.

The bill Obama signed Friday comes at a cost. It virtually guarantees that he will not fulfill during his first term one of the major promises of his 2008 campaign, which was to roll back income tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. That rankles many liberal activists in the Democratic Party who think he should have fought harder on that issue.

Obama also unnecessarily disparaged both left and right as he defended the agreement in the days after it was announced. He described liberal opponents of such deals as "sanctimonious" and purists, while likening the Republicans with whom he made the deal to "hostage takers" for holding out to extend tax cuts for the wealthy and the middle class.

The tax fight widened the divide between Obama and many House Democrats and their allies in the party's activist base. Given the election results and now a tax deal in which they were bystanders to the negotiations, House Democrats are in a surly mood, fearful that Obama will ignore them in the future to further his own political well-being.

The absence of most Democratic congressional leaders from the White House signing ceremony spoke loudly of that rift. Left untreated, that could become a serious problem for the president. If Congress repeals the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on its way out of town, that will be a step toward patching things up - but only one step.

John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former senior House aide, said Obama cannot alienate his base repeatedly without risking a primary opponent in 2012.

"It is quite obvious that he showed some political ruthlessness here," Feehery said in an e-mail. "He cares little about the concerns of House Democrats. If they stand in his way, he will trample over them at the drop of a hat. While that might be politically expedient now, it could prove to be his downfall should he need them later on in his presidency."

For now, however, whatever unrest there is within the House Democratic caucus or among some liberal activists, Obama is not suffering significantly among self-described liberals because of the tax deal. In fact, the agreement has widespread approval.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed almost identical support among liberals, moderates and conservatives. At least two out of three in all groups said they endorsed the package as negotiated by the White House and congressional GOP leaders.

Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who disliked the tax deal in large part because of its impact on the deficit, nonetheless said it would benefit Obama politically.

"I didn't agree with the tax bill, but I think it probably did the president a lot of good," he said. "He is seen as somebody in charge and willing to do things that have to be done, in his view. I think . . . it was a win for him."

Obama's approval ratings, however, have not risen as the tax fight has played out in Congress. Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist, said Obama squandered an opportunity to boost his standing by the way he handled the deal.

"He is trying to run back to the middle but neutered the political value of the tax compromise when he attacked Republicans as 'hostage takers' and condemned the agreement as he embraced it," he said. "The president gets no credit for moving to the middle when he confesses he really didn't want to. Instead, he looks smaller and more political."

There is a natural tendency to suggest that Obama is following the course that President Bill Clinton pursued after his party lost Congress in 1994. Using the infamous strategy of triangulation, Clinton positioned himself between conservative Republicans in Congress and the liberals in his own party.

"Triangulation" is a loaded word these days, particularly among many Democrats. White House officials caution, however, that triangulation is not Obama's goal. Which is to say that the president's political North Star will not necessarily be some imagined space in the middle of the ideological spectrum.

"His attitude is, 'We've got goals to move this economy forward, strengthen the middle class, deal with our long-term competitive challenges, and we shouldn't be dogmatic about how we achieve them,' " White House senior adviser David Axelrod said.

"We should be willing to embrace ideas of either party if they advance the goal," he added. "And if they violate principles that we deeply believe in, we should not be willing to compromise. That's his basic view. Not, 'Go out and find me some centrist positions to signify some sort of change in positioning.' That's not what he's doing. And the truth is, the approach that he's taking is completely consistent with who he's always been."

White House officials believe one big message from the midterm elections is a desire on the part of many Americans for the two parties to work together. The looming expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts gave Obama a chance to demonstrate that approach to governing. And it gave him a political boost far earlier than Clinton's after the Democrats' defeat in 1994.

That may or may not set the tone for battles ahead. But given where he was a month ago, Obama has found some breathing room as he prepares for the changes in Congress that will come next month.

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