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Obama's Message Boiled Down: People Over Politics

President Barack Obama, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010.
President Barack Obama, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010.

If the message of President Obama's Tuesday news conference were boiled down to a few words it would be "the people over politics."

In what strikes some of us long-time Obama watchers as one of his strongest news-conference performances, the president framed his decision to make a controversial deal with congressional Republicans over extending Bush-era tax cuts as coming down to what, in his mind, was best for the American people.

It was a populist argument meant to one-up the Republican populists as well as those in his own party.

By contrast, the president painted both Republican and Democratic ideologues as being more concerned about political posturing than the reality that if a deal wasn't struck before the end of the year, millions of average Americans would see less money in their paychecks or no unemployment checks.

In other words, there would have been blood on the floor. But it wouldn't have been the that of Washington politicians but everyday Americans.

The president referred to "the people" dozens of times and how he was acting on their behalf even though political expediency might have dictated a different course.

It was a form of triangulation, with the angles formed by Republican and Democratic purists on either side and himself standing with the people in the middle. At least, that's the image he was trying to give.

An example:

OBAMA: So this isn't an abstract debate.  This is real money for real
people.  It will make a real difference in the lives of the folks who
sent us here.  It will make a real difference in the pace of job
creation and economic growth.  In other words, it's a good deal for
the American people.

Now, I know there are some who would have preferred a protracted
political fight, even if it had meant higher taxes for all Americans,
even if it had meant an end to unemployment insurance for those who are desperately looking for work.  And I understand the desire for a fight.  I'm sympathetic to that.  I'm as opposed to the high-end tax cuts today as I've been for years.  In the long run, we simply can't afford them.

And when they expire in two years, I will fight to end them, just as I
suspect the Republican Party may fight to end the middle-class tax
cuts that I've championed and that they've opposed.  So we're going to keep on having this debate.  We're going to keep on having this battle.

But in the meantime, I'm not here to play games with the American
people or the health of our economy.  My job is to do whatever I can
to get this economy moving.  My job is to do whatever I can to spur
job creation.  My job is to look out for middle-class families who are
struggling right now to get by, and Americans who are out of work
through no fault of their own.

A long political fight that carried over into next year might
have been good politics, but it would be a bad deal for the economy,
and it would be a bad deal for the American people.  And my
responsibility as president is to do what's right for the American
people.  That's a responsibility I intend to uphold as long as I am in
this office.

Obama appears to be banking on voters, especially those cherished independents who say they want him working with Republicans, forgiving him for compromising on his pledge to cap the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers.

If he was backing away from a campaign promise, it was to help real people. Who could blame him?

Meanwhile, Obama aired some lines we'll probably hearing much of in coming months as the 2012 campaign heats up.

To Obama, the Republicans are Captain Ahab, fixated on the Moby Dick of tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of everything else.

Actually, he used a different metaphor. He called it their Holy Grail.

And he clearly liked his odds of connecting with voters better than Republicans' when he makes his case. For instance, he said, the nation will need to make numerous investments to be more competitive globally. He said:

Now, that's going to be a big debate, and it's going to involve
us sorting out what government functions are adding to our
competitiveness and increasing opportunity and making sure that we're growing the economy, and which aspects of the government aren't helping.  And then we've got to figure out how do we pay for that, and that's going to mean, you know, looking at the tax code and saying, you know, what's fair; what's efficient?  And I don't think anybody thinks the tax code right now is fair or efficient, but we've got to make sure that we don't just paper over those problems by borrowing from China or Saudi Arabia.  And so that's going to be a major conversation.

And in that context, I don't see how the Republicans win that
argument.  I don't know how they are going to be able to argue that
extending permanently these high-end tax cuts is going to be good for our economy when, to offset them, we'd end up having to cut vital services for our kids, for our veterans, for our seniors.

Obama also had a message to his liberal detractors. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

It was also something of a Sister Souljah moment because it allowed the president to demonstrate that he is closer to the center and a pragmatist, not the doctrinaire liberal he's often accused of being.

It was one of the strongest moments of his news conference, helped by the president showing some real passion, even a bit of anger, although Obama being Obama, it was an exquisitely controlled burn.

OBAMA: 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 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.
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 pre-existing condition, or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.

That can't be the measure of -- of how we think about our public
service.  That can't be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.

This is a big, diverse country.  Not everybody agrees with us.  I
know that shocks people.  You know, 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.

That said, Obama made common cause with congressional Democrats by using the same "hostage" metaphor Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, have used in recent days.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Well, let me -- let me use a couple of
analogies.  I -- I've said before that I felt that the middle-class
tax cuts were being held hostage to the high-end tax cuts.  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.

And in a part of his message ostensibly meant for Republicans but also aimed at encouraging fellow Democrats, the president dared Republicans to believe that his willingness to compromise on extending the tax cuts meant they could steamroller him as a matter of course.

And, you know, I will be happy to see the Republicans test
whether or not I'm itching for a fight on a whole range of issues.  I
suspect they will find I am.  And I think the American people will be
my -- on my side on a whole bunch of these fights.

"I suspect they will find I am," may not be the strongest fighting words ever uttered by an American president. But it was about as close as this president is likely to come to the immortal "Go ahead, make my day."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.