Beltway pundits freak out over Obama’s political hardball

President Obama presses his advantage with first fiscal cliff proposal.
President Obama presses his advantage with first fiscal cliff proposal.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP

By playing hardball over the fiscal cliff, President Obama is already doing something many of his supporters had been urging him to do throughout his first term: risk upsetting official Washington.

Last week, Obama made clear he’s ditching the compromise-first approach that in his first term often led him to pre-emptively cave to Republicans, in favor of pushing hard for his priorities. The president’s opening bid in negotiations over the debt made little concession to the GOP, and he followed up by hitting the road to rally public support for his plan. msnbc analyst Ezra Klein on Friday called this new version of the president: “the Obama who refuses to negotiate with himself.”

Republicans, of course, reacted with a combination of outrage and disbelief. But it’s not just the GOP that’s professing shock. A number of prominent Beltway pundits, too, have been scolding Obama for not playing nicer with the opposition. They appear to find the sight of a re-elected Democratic president pushing for the things he campaigned on just too much to take.

David Brooks of The New York Times, speaking Friday on NPR, called Obama’s proposal “a thumb in the eye” and an “insult” to Republicans, and declared himself “mystified” by the White House’s hard line.

As for Obama’s effort to enlist public support, Brooks called it “going out around the country rousing up the circus,” rather than having “respectful conversations.”

Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post was even more scandalized. “This is not negotiating, it’s chest-thumping,” she wrote Friday, calling the White House’s opening bid “pathetic” for failing to offer Republicans more up front.

Marcus chided Obama for failing to recognize the “enormous symbolic significance” of Republicans’ willingness to contemplate raising any revenue whatsoever.

And David Gergen of CNN got in on the act too. Obama’s proposal “was clearly intended to score political points with Democrats rather than entice Republicans into serious negotiations,” he wrote Friday, accusing Obama and Democrats of “overplaying their hands.”

Like Brooks, Gergen is deeply offended by Obama’s appeal to popular sentiment. “Instead of sitting down and negotiating directly with leaders from the other side in private getaways, as presidents like Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan did, the president launches a campaign-style offensive against them,” Gergen wrote.

It’s not hard to see what’s wrong with these condemnations. Obama has a set of priorities, and he’s pushing for them. That’s what presidents are supposed to do. and this was an opening bid, after all. Meanwhile, as we’ve written, the notion that Republicans have made any kind of significant concession is laughable. They haven’t said how much new revenue they’ll accept, or specified how it’ll be done, except to say they won’t contemplate raising rates on the rich, the very position Obama explicitly campaigned on and which enjoys strong public support. What they’re offering is Mitt Romney’s position. As for the idea that rallying public support for one’s cause is somehow out of bounds … we know someone who’d agree—and he lost the election.

But just as significant is the shift in strategy Obama’s approach represents. During the first term, the president was criticized by his liberal base not just for offering too much to Republicans, but also for seeking to curry favor with Washington’s punditocracy, which doesn’t share many of his goals. Brooks, in particular, was a particular target of the White House’s attentions—with no discernible payoff.

Now, the White House appears to have decided that, like pre-emptively compromising with Republicans, trying to please Brooks and his ilk is less important than pushing for what Obama wants.

Beltway pundits freak out over Obama's political hardball