Updated at 9:15 p.m. on December 8.
Defending the tax deal that he reached with congressional Republicans, President Obama aggressively made the case for why his party should support the compromise--and lectured liberals on why they should support the deal.
Facing a full Democratic revolt, Obama was at pains to show that the deal meant "real money for real people" and that it would speed "the pace of job creation and economic growth."
Many Democrats are outraged that the president is now backing an extension of tax cuts for wealthier earners after long campaigning against those very cuts. Obama argued that he had thwarted the Republicans' ambition to make tax cuts for the wealthy a permanent feature of America's economic landscape while garnering things Democrats have been seeking such as an extension of unemployment benefits for more than a year.
Seemingly frustrated, the president caricatured those who oppose the deal as looking for a fight at the expense of Americans calling them "sanctimonious."
With an eye toward 2012--when he faces reelection and the tax cuts would expire under the deal struck on Monday--Obama portrayed the accord as a smart tactical maneuver, not a surrender, saying that the temporary nature of the cuts "gives us time to fight."
"We're going to keep on having this debate. We're going to keep on having this battle," the president declared, adding that "the American people already agree with me" and citing polls showing that the public supports his belief that tax cuts should not be extended for the wealthy. "I know the polls. The polls are on my side on this."
In extraordinary language, where he likened the Republicans to kidnappers, he said that there were times you had to negotiate with "bomb-throwers."
But Obama's harshest language and angriest tone was reserved for those on his party's left who criticized the deal.
It remains to be seen whether this emotional tone, so unusual for the typically cool and even academic president, presages how Obama might face a primary challenge from the left in 2012 or whether it was a moment of exasperation unique to the moment. It's unclear, after all, whether discontent on the left will have long passed by 2012 or if will be reaching a full boil. A primary challenge would be unlikely given the huge advantages bestowed on incumbent presidents and, for Obama, the large African-American turnout in Democratic presidential primaries that would presumably continue to support him. Still, recent presidents including George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon have faced primary challenges, some modest like Nixon's and some coming perilously close to derailing the incumbent such as Ronald Reagan's challenge to Ford in 1976.
Whatever lay ahead, Obama was so animated today that he picked at a scab on the American left, excoriating those who denounced his health care bill because it did not contain the so-called public option that would have allowed Americans to buy insurance directly from the government.
"It 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 have been fighting for for 100 years," Obama said, "but because here was provision there that they didn’t get, that would have affected maybe a couple million people even though we got insurance for maybe 30 million people, and lower premiums for 100 million people, that that somehow was a sign of weakness and compromise."
Underscoring his exasperation, the president portrayed his party's Left as myopic, unable to see that millions of Americans did not and would not agree with them.
"This is a big diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people," the president said sarcastically. "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 and how can we make sure that our elected officials are looking out for us. And that means because it's a big diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done, we're going to compromise."
The question looming over Obama and the Democrats is whether this much compromise is good policy and good politics. When it comes to helping the economy, it's not clear. The tax cuts, even extended temporarily for all earners, will add to the federal deficit as will the extension of unemployment benefits and the patch for the alternative minimum tax. The lack of certainty in the tax code probably isn't a plus either. But keeping more money in the hands of taxpayers in the form of the continued income-tax cuts and providing a temporary Social Security tax holiday will surely have a stimulative effect on the economy.
The politics seem equally uncertain. Democrats have been almost united in their belief that extending Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was verboten. Now they're being asked to swallow their positions. Many don't want to. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with Democrats, has vowed to filibuster the measure if it comes before the Senate. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., has likened the president's deal to "punting on third down"--that Obama gave up too early. Republicans, on the other hand, have been praising the deal and did not have to swallow one of their orthodoxies: Never raise taxes.
When asked by a reporter from National Journal if Republicans still had considerable leverage in the form of the debt ceiling, Obama said that he took presumptive House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, "at his word."
"Nobody--Democrat or Republican--is willing to see the full faith and credit of the government collapse," the president said.
With Democrats giving more, it's not surprising that Obama himself said that he "wanted to speak especially to my fellow Democrats" and he made his case repeatedly that the current deal was the best he could get given GOP opposition, that it had many positive elements such as the tax cuts for the rich only being temporary. But he hardly gave wavering Democrats good reason for retreating from a position that he and his party members have long held.
In one of the most emotional displays by a president at a news conference in recent memory, Obama denounced those who failed to compromise saying that they were "sanctimonious."
"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," Obama railed.
For good measure, he added: "That can't be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can't be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat."
CORRECTION: The original version of this report misspelled Rep. Anthony Weiner's name.
George E. Condon Jr., Rebecca Kaplan, and Ben Terris contributed