Almost lost in the debate over the tax cut compromise this week was a striking moment of defiance and self-definition from President Obama.
It came in the final five minutes of Tuesday’s afternoon press conference. With the president under attack from congressional Democrats and the press corps, Obama recaptured some of the 2008 campaign magic when he started to push back and passionately defend his approach to the presidency.
The comments offered an uncensored look into his frustrations with armchair ideologues and his “North Star” philosophy of governing as a pragmatic progressive. It deserves a close reading and a place on the Obama administration highlight reel.
Twenty-six minutes into his press conference, the president took this final question from Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal.
“Some on the left have looked at this deal and questioned what your core values are,” Weisman asked. “What specifically you will go to the mat on?”
Obama started to rattle on about budgets and deficits and 2012 and then Wesimann interrupted him: “Where is your line in the sand?”
That’s when No Drama Obama got pissed and presidential.
“Not making the tax cuts for the wealthy permanent—that was a line in the sand. Making sure that the things that most impact middle-class families and low-income families, that those were preserved—that was a line in the sand.”
Obama drilled down the list of the unemployment extensions, the earned income tax credit, and the college tuition tax credit—all the benefits he got added to the temporary extension of the top rate of the Bush tax cuts. This is the backdoor middle class stimulus that conservatives like Charles Krauthammer have decried as liberals simultaneously have cried defeat.
Obama then took aim at the left-wing Democratic critics in congress and the media who’d been pounding him as unprincipled and weak. He showed the scars of his defining fight for health care reform with a surprising enemy in his muscle memory—the all or nothing liberal activist crowd.
“This notion that somehow we are willing to compromise too much reminds me of the debate that we had during health care. This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.”
This was not just raw frustration but a cold dose of perspective from the man in the Oval Office. It was a declaration of independence from the professional left and a statement of principle from a pragmatic progressive.
“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. 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 ‘sanctimonious’ dig drew the most howls from the left because it cut the closest—the first African-American president acknowledging the self-righteousness of the professional left. Because these are the stakes – either you embrace the politics of problem-solving and get the best deal you can, or the people who are supposedly trying to help suffer from the functional neglect that comes from noble failure.
He was on a roll, and the unvarnished opinion must have been feeling good because then Obama took aim at the self-appointed opinion-makers of the media – those who have the luxury to engage in arm-chair ideological debates, offering contradictory advice with equal conviction, while he has the responsibility of actually making decisions.
“This is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. The New York Times editorial page does not permeate across all of America. Neither does The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Most Americans, they’re just trying to figure out how to go about their lives…in order to get stuff done, we’re going to compromise.”
When you watch the video, the sarcasm of the “I know that shocks people” comes through clearly. He is mocking the Washington bubble, his own inner circle as well as the insulated commentariat debate. The President still has a sense of perspective, somehow. Perhaps because he’s comforted by the lessons of history:
“FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew. Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal. This country was founded on compromise.”
And then he dropped the big hammer argument for faith in evolving toward a more perfect union.
“I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding.”
That’s when the air went out of the room and the president commanded the stage. Rarely does he get so raw and personal. Rarely does he invoke the specter of race. But there it was in a cold hard statement of eloquent fact that could have been scripted by Aaron Sorkin.
With the timing of a one-two punch, it was followed by an invocation of constitutional convention and the civil war: “And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.”
But he wasn’t done. That’s when President Obama laid out perhaps the clearest statement of his governing philosophy since settling into office.
“My job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there. What is helping the American people live out their lives? What is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? What is making us more competitive? And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done. And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight—not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term.”
This North Star approach to the presidency is classic and deeply pragmatic. It is centrist in its methods, ambitious in achieving long-term goals, emphasizing responsible stewardship of the nation as a whole. This approach to the office is hardly radical. It explains Obama’s frustration with the hyper-partisan heckling that disproportionately dominates our political debates.
It echoes what Walter Lippman wrote while reflecting on the American presidency during FDR’s time in office: “As a matter of historical experience, it is clear that a responsible and effective statesman can rarely be classified as all ‘conservative’ or all ‘radical’…It is all very confusing to those who would like their politics neat and simple, black or white, left or right. But human affairs are more complicated than human formulas.”
We are living in a time of grossly distorted fun-house mirror political debates, where the far-right thinks that the president is a Marxist and the far-left thinks that he is a Wall Street sellout. In this over-heated environment, the responsibilities of governing get downgraded as the country gets divided. It is time to start turning the tide.
When we look back at the history of the Obama administration, those five minutes just might be remembered as the moment when Obama started to get his Mojo back and set the tone for the next two years. The North Star approach to the presidency will allow him to reclaim the allegiance of the center while steering toward re-election in 2012.