Since the deal was announced, the reaction from his liberal Democratic base has been harshly negative, especially over the two-year extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republicans, he said, would not budge on that point and he did not have the votes in Congress to bypass them.
The president referred to the middle-class tax cuts as having been “held hostage” to the high-end tax cuts.
“I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers, unless the hostage gets harmed,” Mr. Obama said, speaking from the White House’s Brady briefing room. “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.”
Obama’s bottom line was that the middle class not see a tax increase come January and that 2 million long-term unemployed Americans get an extension of jobless benefits, which will now last an additional 13 months. Had a deal not been reached, all the Bush tax cuts would have expired on Dec. 31. Liberal Democrats expressed frustration that Obama didn’t, in their view, fight harder to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent of earners.
He pointed out that Republicans would have preferred to see all the tax cuts made permanent, suggesting that his opponents also made concessions.
Most striking was the final question in Obama’s half-hour, last-minute news conference. The president was asked about his core values, a question that appeared to touch a nerve in the usually cerebral Obama. He came across as if he felt misunderstood and unappreciated.
“Look, I’ve got a bunch of lines in the sand. Not – not – not – not making the tax cuts for the wealthy permanent, that was a line in the sand,” he said. “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.”
He added that he also insisted that other tax breaks besides the Bush tax cuts be preserved, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the college tax credit. He wasn’t going to let go of tax breaks “just because they had Obama's name attached to them instead of Bush's name attached to them.”
Obama bristled at the notion that he compromises too much, saying it reminded him of the health-care debate.
“This is the public option debate all over again,” he said, referring to the proposal that the health-care package include a publicly run insurance option. That provision, strongly supported by liberals, was not included in the final version of the bill, now law.
In a burst of frustration, Obama said: “So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for 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 a hundred million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.”
“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,” Obama continued. “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.”
“This country was founded on compromise. I couldn't go through the front door at this country's founding,” Obama said, referring to his African American heritage. “And, you know, if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn't have a union. So my job is to make sure that we have a north star out there.”
He concluded by suggesting that everyone take the long view.
“To my Democratic friends, what I'd suggest is, let's make sure that we understand this is a long game. This is not a short game,” Obama said. “And to my Republican friends, I would suggest – I think this is a good agreement, because I know that they're swallowing some things that they don't like as well. And I'm looking forward to seeing them on the field of competition over the next two years.”