For liberals, that’s the question that just won’t go away, and it’s only intensified in recent days, now that Republicans who have already agreed that a debt ceiling hike is imperative are demanding huge spending cuts in exchange for it. Paul Krugman asks that question in his column this morning, noting that “the question becomes what, if anything, will get the president to say no.”

Similar complaints have been lodged by Jon Chait and Steve Benen. The other day, Kevin Drum concluded that the only plausible explanation is that Obama wants Republicans to create a hostage situation. “The most likely explanation for his position is that he wants Republicans to make demands on him,” Drum noted, adding that “the only question is why.”

All very good questions, but I think the answer is right out there on the public record: It lies in the White House’s view of what it will take to win back independents.

As Anne Kornblut reported recently, getting inside the thinking of White House advisers...

The advisers are deeply concerned about winning back political independents, who supported Obama two years ago by an eight-point margin but backed Republicans for the House this year by 19 points. To do so, they think he must forge partnerships with Republicans on key issues and make noticeable progress on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington.

This strikes me as a fairly straightforward explanation for what’s going on. As David Axelrod said in a recent interview with bloggers, after the midterms Obama’s advisers concluded that they needed to get back to “first principles” and recapture what’s been “central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook.” Axelrod defined Obama’s first principles as follows: “you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things.”

It seems clear that Obama and his advisers think laying down a firm marker — playing the game the way Republicans do — makes him sound like just another Washington politician. Saying “no,” as Krugman puts it, risks miring Obama in the same mud as all the rest of the partisan mud-slingers on both sides. The health care wars left Obama splattered with that mud. Signaling openness to compromise at the outset while articulating general principles as opposed to bottom lines — whatever it does for the Dems’ negotiating position — is central to Obama’s political identity and is the best way to recapture the aura that propelled him into the White House in the first place. It might be called “Beer Summit-ism.”

I’m not endorsing this view. I’m just reminding folks that there isn’t any big mystery here. This is who Obama is.