Forced March

The president gets stern with his liberal base.

US President Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama speaks at a press conference.

President Obama rallies the base in two ways: by lifting them up, and lecturing them. An example of the first approach is his address last spring to House Democrats before the health care reform vote, when he talked of the common spark that led all of them to public service. The second approach was evident at his news conference today. Appearing exasperated at times, Obama tried to explain (again) why he had to make the deal on tax cuts with Republicans. It was a public event, but it felt like a closed-circuit address to the Democratic caucus. When he repeated his reasoning, you could occasionally hear his implied salutation: “You numbskulls.”

Liberals want president Obama to fight, and he is—against them. He doesn’t get why they don’t see the political reality of the situation: Taxes will go up for everyone if he doesn’t make this deal. The economy will buckle. Families will suffer. He can’t gamble that Republicans will make any last-minute concessions. He has to act. “I have not been able to budge them,” Obama said of the Republicans. “And I don’t think there’s any suggestion anybody in this room thinks, realistically, that we can budge them right now. And in the meantime there are a whole bunch of people being hurt. And the economy would be damaged. And my first job is to make sure the economy is growing, that we’re creating jobs out there, and that people who are struggling are getting some relief.”

When debating with Republicans, the president uses tough rhetoric, and he dished some today. He said he was “”itching for a fight on a whole range of issues.” But when talking about Democrats, he has the intensity associated with family arguments. He was as heated as he gets in public (still not warm enough for your hot chocolate, but above his baseline, which is the serving temperature for white wine). He warned liberals of being “sanctimonious” and engaging in a no-win political fight simply to stir up their bodily humors. He compared it to the last dead-end fight liberals wanted to wage—over the public option during the debate over health care reform, in which they were willing to give up the chance to extend insurance to millions for a narrow ideological crusade.

If complete victories are “the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles,” he said, “then, let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people.”

It is not often the case that you can persuade people to change their opinion by hinting that they’re not very bright. (The beatings will stop once morale improves!) Democrats on the other side of the issue are fighting with their own moral passion. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana challenged the plan’s “moral corruptness” as she headed in to a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, who was visiting the Hill to persuade Democrats. “It’s what I’m calling the Obama-McConnell plan.” Landrieu said. “We’re going to borrow $46 billion from the poor, from the middle class, from businesses of all sizes basically to give a tax cut to families in America today, that despite the recession, are making over a million dollars.”

Let’s pause to measure the distance: Two years ago Barack Obama was the Democratic Party’s great hope. Now he is being accused of undermining one of the party’s core moral principles.

As a political matter, the president is continuing to plant his flag in the middle —not just in this fight, but for his entire presidency. Responding to the last question of the session, the president gave the most detailed articulation to date of his governing philosophy. He made the case for the sort of compromise, diversity, and working for imperfect progress that has been the hallmark of the American experience. “This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding. And, you know, if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.” (Read the entire answer in this sidebar.)

Obama is a pragmatist, just as he and his aides claimed when he came into office. This is why the charge that Obama is a socialist was always so silly. What causes him genuine irritation? Not the thwarting of his secret utopian dreams, but the inability to get a bipartisan compromise. To see how a true socialist might respond in this situation, look no further than Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, who has vowed to block the deal.

The president was trying so hard to explain himself to his friends, he stretched his analogies to the breaking point. Returning to the hostage analogy he used to describe Republicans in his last news conference before the midterm election, he said, “I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy. In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.” Later he said the American people needed to get “in a safe place, so that we can then get the economy in a stable place. And then we’re going to have a broad-based discussion across the country about our priorities.”

For a moment there, he almost seemed ready to wrap the American people in emergency blankets and give them orange juice. Before he can do that, though, he’s got to deal with the rumble in his own squad car.

Become a fan of Slate  and  John Dickerson  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.