President Obama held a quickly arranged press conference at the White House to defend his tax cut deal but spent most of his time attacking Republicans for being unwilling to compromise and seeking to persuade the press that he is not a pushover.
The president, in one of the most feisty and defensive public appearances of his presidency, spent as much if not more time talking about his willingness to confront an intransigent Republican opposition in the future as he did explaining and selling the tax cut plan he announced Monday evening.
Obama was equally frustrated with his own liberal base, which has clamored for him to fight Republicans rather than negotiate or compromise. But, casting himself numerous times as the protector of the American people, Obama said he had no choice.
“It’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed,” Obama said. “In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.”
Obama said he wanted to “get the American people in a safe place” by ensuring that no one’s taxes went up on January 1, and had to agree to extend the current tax rates even for high income earners to do so.
“This isn’t the politics of the moment. This has to do with, ‘What can we get done right now?’” he said, not explaining the distinction between the two. “We can’t get my preferred option through the Senate right now.”
Obama said the country agrees with him that wealthy Americans should have to pay more taxes, though polls have shown more complexity on the issue when the question is cast in light of the overall economic impact of higher tax rates next year.
“The issue is not me persuading the American people. They’re already there. The issue is how do I persuade the Republicans in the Senate?” Obama said. “I have not been able to budge them.”
Yet the taunting chorus continued from left-wing critics following the president’s performance.
“President Obama repeatedly stated that he ‘can’t persuade’ Senate Republicans to end tax cuts for the rich,” said Adam Green, the head of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee who has been a loud and growing irritant to the president.
“In addition to undercutting his ‘yes we can’ mantra, the sad reality is that President Obama never even tried to persuade Republicans to do the right thing. He telegraphed his willingness to cave from the start by solely talking about ‘compromise’ and never talking about holding Republicans accountable to their constituents if they opposed him,” Green said.
The president stiffened when asked numerous times whether he is, essentially, tough enough. He said he was “itching for a fight” with Republicans next year over the many issues they will clash on. He also said that when the tax rates for all earners are set to go up again in two years, he will “fight” to raise them on those making more than $250,000 a year.
“I am happy to be tested over the next several months over our ability to negotiate with Republicans,” he said, though he faced immediate skepticism in one question over what leverage he will have when the national debt nears the debt ceiling, requiring a vote in Congress to raise it.
Republicans are expected to demand deep spending cuts during the debt ceiling debate, which is likely to occur in the early spring, or sooner.
But Obama said Republicans will be just as responsible for maintaining the nation’s credit, especially since they will control the House.
“Nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse. That would not be a good thing to happen,” Obama said.