Obama on why he gave in on tax cuts for the wealthy and the estate tax

Yesterday, I wrote that I’d had it with Obama – that I’d finally had enough. Now, though, having just watched his press conference, I’m beginning to question myself. Here, if you haven’t seen it, is video of the whole thing, followed by the portion of the transcript which I feel was directed right at me.

Jonathan Weisman: Some on the left have questioned — have looked at this deal and questioned what your core values are, what specifically you will go to the mat on. I’m wondering if you can reassure them with some specific things in saying, all right, this is where I don’t budge. And along those lines, what’s going to be different in 2012, when all these tax cuts again are up for expiration?

Barack Obama: Well, what’s going to be different in 2012 we’ve just discussed, which is we will have had two years to discuss the budget — not in the abstract, but in concrete terms. Over the last two years, the Republicans have had the benefit of watching us take all these emergency actions, having us preside over a $1.3 trillion deficit that we inherited and just pointing fingers and saying, that’s their problem.

Well, over the next two years, they’re going to have to show me what it is that they think they can do. And I think it becomes pretty clear, after you go through the budget line by line, that if in fact they want to pay for $700 billion worth of tax breaks to wealthy individuals, that that’s a lot of money and that the cuts — corresponding cuts that would have to be made are very painful. So either they rethink their position, or I don’t think they’re going to do very well in 2012. So that’s on the first point.

With respect to the bottom line in terms of what my core principles are —

Jonathan Weisman: Where is your line in the sand?

Barack Obama: Well, look, I’ve got a whole bunch of lines in the sand. Not making the tax cuts for the wealthy permanent — that was a line in the sand. 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. I would not have agreed to a deal, which, by the way, some in Congress were talking about, of just a two-year extension on the Bush tax cuts and one year of unemployment insurance, but meanwhile all the other provisions, the Earned Income Tax Credit or other important breaks for middle-class families like the college tax credit, that those had gone away just because they had Obama’s name attached to them instead of Bush’s name attached to them.

So this notion that somehow we are willing to compromise too much 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 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 100 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 preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.

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. This is a big, diverse country. Not everybody agrees with us. I know that shocks people. 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. This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew.

Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal. This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding. And 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. What is helping the American people live out their lives? What is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? What is making us more competitive? And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done.

And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight — not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term?

And I don’t think there’s a single Democrat out there, who if they looked at where we started when I came into office and look at where we are now, would say that somehow we have not moved in the direction that I promised.

Take a tally. Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.

And so the — 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. 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.

I still think he played it wrong, but I’m now at a point where I’m tempted to say that I respect his position. And, if I were one of those 2 million Americans who would have otherwise lost my unemployment benefits, I’m sure that I’d be thankful tonight that my President chose not to play politics with the the health and wellbeing of my family. I’m not saying that I’m happy about the outcome, or that I approve of his position, but I do acknowledge that there’s a possibility that he did things this way not because he was weak, or didn’t want to call the bluff of the Republicans, but because he’s got the best interests of the American people in mind and has a plan as to how to get us what we all want. But, maybe I’m being naive. Maybe he just doesn’t have it in him to fight.

[update: Paul Krugman had the following to say about the above comment from Barack Obama… “There is a fraying of trust here. And I have to say that the President, in going after his progressive critics was enormously self-indulgent. What does he think that he’s going to accomplish by doing that? If this is what he thinks he needs to do, fine. But, I can’t see who he think he’s going to win over to his side by complaining about people on the left who don’t understand how hard his job is.”]

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  1. A Different Bob
    Posted December 7, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. As much as it sucks, it’s done and there was compromise on both sides. Let’s accept that as something of an accomplishment for now.

  2. Andy C
    Posted December 7, 2010 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    No. This is short sighted and wrong. Two million Americans WILL lose their unemployment benefits once the Republican house start slashing the budget to pay for these tax cuts. This is thinking short term. Give them an inch and they take a mile. I am so glad I have no kids to screw over.

  3. Glen S.
    Posted December 7, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Long story short: In the middle of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, Republicans decided to hold unemployed Americans “hostage” by threatening not to renew their benefits if they didn’t gain an extension of already historically-low taxes for the wealthiest 2% of Americans.

    So, instead of calling the Republicans’ bluff (and actually making them “own” their decision to cut these vital benefits two weeks before Christmas!) Obama decided to not only cut a deal, but also to throw in a disastrous, temporary cut in Social Security taxes that — mark my words — will come back to haunt him a year from now … just as the 2010 Presidential race is starting to heat up.

    Over the past two years, unemployment and foreclosures have risen to record levels — while corporate profits and Wall Street bonuses have done the same. Obama championed a healthcare “reform” package that does little to assure better care or control costs — but provided a windfall for private insurance companies. Obama has continued, or even expanded, many of the Bush regime’s worst human rights abuses — such as Guantanamo Bay, “extraordinary rendition” and extra-judicial targeted killings of U.S. citizens determined to be “enemy combatants.” Etc., etc., etc.

    I appreciate Mark’s mixed feelings on this issue (and I admit to struggling with the Obama “dilemma” a great deal, myself), but, following this latest debacle, I have come to the conclusion that the time has come to seriously consider supporting either a Democratic primary challenge to Obama — or a third party bid for 2012.

  4. Tommy
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    He’s cooked. Especially if the the House Dems revolt. 2% less in income tax for the rich? who the hell cares. When these things expire, it is the 2% break everybody is getting on paying Sociall Security that will be the bane of the Dems existence. A return to normal (6.2% v. 4.2%) will be effectively sold as a tax hike by the right al the while accomplishing the ultimate goal of dumping all social programs.

    Right now from the Big O, we need a bit more Malcolm X and a bit less Martin Luther King.

  5. elviscostello
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Mark, I watched President Obama’s confernace as well. I put in many hours on the Obama campaign and donated money from my Credit card to help him get elected. I am so very tired of his anger at the left, as though we are his problem, not the GOP. I am so tired of his compromises. I am so tired of his abandoning his positions on Afghanistan, Gitmo, Public Option, ad nauseum…
    If you get a chance look at Keith Olberman’s Special Comment from last night, you may change your mind on this

  6. jean
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I’m with you Mark. Heard the speech on the way to a meeting. The bit about FDR and Medicare really got to me. It reminded me how change really happens– not just in government but everywhere. It’s easy to be an armchair critic. He’s taking the true high road which is always compromise and finding middle ground, I give a little, you give a little. Somebody has to be a statesman. As a friend said after the speech, ‘Right now I’d rather have Clinton than Carter.’

  7. Kristin
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    It’s stealth stimulus!


    I can’t even count the ways I’m disappointed with this president, and I’m a socially liberal/fiscally conservative Dem. I’d say I’m exhausted with defending him, but I’m afraid I’d lose my job.

  8. Edward
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    It’s a hell of a tough call. I’m still struggling with it. My gut tells that he should have gone for more, but maybe, knowing the Republicans, he got what he could. What if the Republicans didn’t back down and accept a package that didn’t include tax cuts for the rich? Where would those 2 million American families depending on unemployment insurance by then? I do desperately want to see Obama fight for something though.

  9. Knox
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Check out this new Obama graphic.


  10. kjc
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I think he cynically frames the debate in a way that rationalizes his choices. I especially liked how he referred to everyone who doesn’t agree with his compromise as people “itching for a protracted political fight”. yes, why can ‘t we just grow up and know that what can be done and what Obama does are always the same thing.

  11. JJ Smith
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Usually you can tell something’s a good deal if people on both sides are complaining. And, as you’ve no doubt noticed, we aren’t hearing a peep from the Republicans. They got everything they wanted. This is not a good deal, regardless of what Obama says. He could have pushed them harder.

  12. Kim
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I think Jean hit the nail on the head with the comment about Clinton and Carter. Carter had a better vision, but he couldn’t execute. As much as it kills me to say it, Clinton was probably the better President. So, while it pains me to see the Republicans getting what they want here, and running up the deficit in the process, I’m hopeful that Obama knew what he was doing and truly felt that the recovery was too tenuous to be tested at this time. The last thing any of us want is a turn back toward recession, and the loss of the middle class tax cuts combined with the end of unemployment benefits could have done that.

  13. kjc
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Carter was a victim of his time, and Clinton was a beneficiary of his.

    As for Obama truly feeling these decisions are best, I agree he does. And it’s disturbing.

  14. kjc
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    As for a true “statesman”, i’ll take a guy who didn’t come up with the 1996 welfare reform plan. Clinton did some horrible shit and got away with it.

  15. Tommy
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    The following should be required reading for anyone who cares to gain a better understanding of what is going on now, thus setting the stage for what is to be. Well worth the five minutes it will take you to read and digest.


  16. Posted December 8, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Feingold in 2012.

  17. Bob
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I think he should have at least forced the GOP to go to the floor and deny the extension of unemployment benefits. Should have done it right before Christmas break and stuck to denying the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy. I’m no longer believing he has some great long term strategy for victory either. I think he’s a good, decent person but too principled for his dirty job.

  18. A Different Bob
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Bob, I think you hit the nail on the head. I truly believe he did it to keep tax breaks for the middle class and provide benefits for the unemployed. While I agree he should have let the GOP look like douche bags, that wouldn’t have helped anyone who needs to put food on their table. Unfortunately, he is a decent person with principles in a dirty job – I like that.

    I am just curious where all the tea baggers and Sarah Palin are right now? Why aren’t they bitching at the GOP for putting in place a plan that increases our debt another $900 billion? Why aren’t people bitching about that? If the GOP had any principles at all they would not have accepted this compromise and worked to find a compromise that had funding. They’re all dirt fuckers

  19. Bob
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    I just can’t get my head around the notion that he sees it as a fair trade. One year of unemployment extensions for a small percentage of citizens, versus a minimum of two years of tax breaks for an even smaller number of citizens. Tax breaks that aren’t going to create a single job and will likely end up becoming permanent when the GOP takes the white house in two years. It makes no sense. I would hate to see any number of people get their benefits cut off, but the money that would be put back in to the system by eliminating the Bush cuts is huge. It would do far more for the economy and jobs in the long run.

    I have no doubt that I’m stupider than President Obama, but I just can’t understand how he thinks this strategy is good for anything. I think his advisers have really convinced him that progressives are going to stick with him no matter what, and I think they’re wrong. Even moderate dems in congress are fighting him on this one. It blows. I wish he would stand up to these Republican turds and just not run for reelection. Walk away and let Clinton run against Romney or Palin. Short of the economy getting drastically better in the next year, he’s probably toast. I can’t believe I’m wishing it had been Clinton.

  20. A Different Bob
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    We are in for a world of shit in two years.

  21. Scoremore
    Posted December 9, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    You talk like you think raising taxes brings in more money. It doesn’t. It just slows the economy down, and you end up collecting less money anyway. The people who pay those taxes get a vote. They can refrain from investing, defer income, take their vacation instead of working, and a host of other micro and macro decisions that will lessen their tax burden.
    I saw a chart recently that showed that actual tax receipts as a percentage of GDP has remained basically constant at around 19% for the last 50 years or so.
    So, if you want to collect more taxes, you should try to do something to increase GDP – like maybe cut taxes even further.

  22. dragon
    Posted December 9, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    You’re wrong, scoreless.


  23. Robert
    Posted December 11, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    James Carville said of Obama, “If Hillary gave him one of her balls, they’d both have two.”

  24. Glen S.
    Posted December 11, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone else see yesterday’s bizarre Presidential press conference, where Obama brought out Bill Clinton to make some remarks, then exited the room … leaving Clinton at the podium to take reporters questions for almost 20 minutes, all the while standing beneath the “White House” seal, as if he were still the President?

    In case anyone was still scratching their heads wondering about whether Obama is a “moderate,” “third way,” DLC-style Democrat or, for that matter,whether he ever really believed in bringing any kind of “change” to Washington — surely yesterday’s spectacle provided all the proof that was necessary.

    Obama’s choice to bring out Clinton (who gave us “welfare reform,” NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, etc.) to help shill for his latest horrendous sell-out to the Republicans was just SO politically tone-deaf on a variety of levels, it is really hard to even fathom.

    The whole success of Obama’s 2008 campaign was based on convincing enough weary working-class and middle-class voters (and especially many younger, infrequent, and first-time voters) that he was actually serious about changing the way Washington works, and actually prepared to stand up and fight for ordinary Americans. Now, only two years later, we have Obama trying to sell the absolute worst kind of “back-room,” negotiated-behind-closed-doors deal that (as usual), screws over the poor and working class to the benefit of the wealthy and powerful — and using the “King of Triangulation” to help him do it!

    So, here’s my message to President Obama, who at this point appears to be comfortably ensconced inside the infamous Beltway Bubble:

    In 2008, you were given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove to the millions of young people, poor people, hardworking working- and middle-class people, infrequent voters, and even never-before voters who supported you (and the Democratic Party) that their votes actually MEANT something. However, at this point, your quixotic quest for “bipartisanship” and “compromise” is doing just the opposite. In fact, what it is really doing is fueling the already rampant cynicism, disillusionment, and belief that government is the problem — rather than a possible solution — to our nation’s problems.

    These voters gave you their confidence but, each day, you seem to turn your back on them, and us — and many are never coming back — to you, to the Democratic Party, or perhaps even to a voting booth, ever again.

  25. Bob
    Posted December 11, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    everything you said

  26. Oliva
    Posted December 12, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Ishmael Reed, superb writer and important voice, for some critical perspective on the op-ed page of the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/opinion/12reed.html?ref=opinion. Surely history will show the extent of racial bigotry that was given renewed life around Inauguration Day and has been given a nearly free pass since then. May more and more Americans see it and stand up to it.

  27. Glen S.
    Posted December 12, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink


    First of all, let me say that I can’t help noticing that this is at least the second time you have followed one of my posts criticizing some aspect of President Obama’s job performance with a comment or link hinting that criticism of Obama = racism, so I hope you’re intention is not characterize my comments that way.

    I do agree with you that a great deal of the criticism of President Obama from the Tea Party and far-right Republicans is, if not caused by overt racism then at least greatly influenced by it.

    But, if you’re trying to suggest that the more recent criticism from the left that Obama has not done enough to stand up to Republicans is somehow racist, or influenced by a lack of understanding about race issues, I think you are dangerously mistaken. (Ironically, I think the recent spectacle of Obama turning his press conference over to former President Clinton to handle reporters questions regarding this complicated and contentious issue showed a stunning lack of understanding in this regard and — at the very least, a complete failure to understand the “optics” of doing so.)

    In any case, there is no question that the election of Obama as America’s first Black President was an major milestone, and one which represented a major historical turning point for relationships between Americans of all races. I, personally, was very proud for Obama, and for America, when he was elected and inaugurated.

    Ultimately, however, it means much less to me whether a President is White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, a Woman, Gay, whatever … and much more that we have a President who is doing all he or she can to fight for what what is right and just, and who is willing to stand up to rich and powerful in defense of ordinary poor, working- and middle-class Americans.

    Breaking barriers by electing a Black President, Woman President, whatever, is all well and good. But I have to ask: Does it really help anybody if all they end up doing is perpetuating, or even accelerating, the same old corporate-dominated, permanent-war-economy, trickle-down economic policies which have been tearing at the fabric of America for over 30 years?

  28. Posted December 12, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    “You talk like you think raising taxes brings in more money. It doesn’t. It just slows the economy down, and you end up collecting less money anyway. The people who pay those taxes get a vote. They can refrain from investing, defer income, take their vacation instead of working, and a host of other micro and macro decisions that will lessen their tax burden.”

    Is anyone else tired of this stupid argument?

    Cutting down on calories is really good for health. However, there comes a point where you’re starving and your health starts to fall apart. Eventually, if you keep continually cutting calories, you will end up with nothing and you’ll die.

    These people have a point if everyone is being taxed 98% of their income. However, taxes cuts and economic benefits are not linearly related and it’s overly simplistic to assume they are.

  29. Oliva
    Posted December 12, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear, Glen S., I didn’t even read a single comment preceding my own–rotten blog etiquette, I’m sorry! And I’m sorry that you mistook my comment for a response to yours. We’ve been sick around here, so I’m out of the loop–but I’ve been wanting to read comments and posts here this week and will soon. I saw the Reed piece and wanted to share it, picked this as a reasonable post under which to do it. I wish I’d been more eloquent in the surrounding words too, but the main thing was to share the link. I do appreciate his take and always appreciate words he’s written–poems, essays, stories.

    (Am looking forward to reading about last night’s Krampus festivities, which is what brought me here today. I hope it was so fun.)

  30. Posted December 12, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    I did not vote for Obama because of race. I voted for him because I wanted a change from Washington politics as usual, and because I supported most of the ideas he expressed and the plans he said he had and would execute once he was in office. I was proud to be a Democrat. I have been disappointed several times by the way Obama has conducted himself in office and in the case of this tax compromise, I have lost tremendous respect for him as a leader. It has nothing to do with his race. There are values that guide the Democratic party and without honoring those values, there is no party and he is a poor leader. To start the process of dismantling Social Security, giving excessive income tax and estate tax breaks to the rich and creating a larger deficit (something that even the Republicans don’t want), puts a greater burden onto an already stressed middle class and on our children, who will pay the bill and be without important parts of the social safety net that is one important thing a government can provide for it’s citizens in good times, but especially in bad times. Taxes on the top 2% DOES NOT slow the economy down. Has everyone forgotten that the Bush tax cuts did not stimulate the economy? Have people forgotten the failed Republican “trickle down” tactics that helped to get us into our present poor economic situation? I am disappointed that Obama feels it is just too difficult to fight for what is right for the majority of people in the country and to do what the overwhelming majority of citizens want. As for bringing in Bill Clinton and then excusing himself from doing the nations business so his wife wouldn’t be disappointed and/or he had a party to attend? Where does one start?

  31. Bob
    Posted December 12, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Obama has started to conduct himself like every other wealthy white guy who’s been in the oval office. It’s a sort of progress, I guess.

  32. dragon
    Posted December 12, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    and creating a larger deficit (something that even the Republicans don’t want)


  33. Knox
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I think Obama may just be to smart and too nice for the office. What we need now is a crude, mean, pick-up-your-dogs-by-the-ears fucker like LBJ.

  34. Knox
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    See “the Johnson treatment”.


  35. Oliva
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    WNYC’s Brian Lehrer is hosting call-in radio shows (podcasts available) with self-described progressives, Tea Partiers, and so-called centrists. It’s interesting–even better than C-SPAN call-in shows that try to tap sentiments from across the country. I like living in a fairly progressive place (back in like 2002 a writer at the Nation said that Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor–maybe said Ypsi even more than Ann Arbor, but I don’t remember for sure–were “possibly the most progressive” cities in the country). Okay, I need this kind of place. But I do like hearing what various other real Americans are thinking. And I crave a glimpse of multidimensionality among Dems–there are so many overlapping angles and some areas without much discernible overlap. But we tend to hear the same analyses and positions, when they’re actually much more varied. That’s one reason I liked Ishmael Reed’s prominent op-ed. It’s not about Obama being black or our first black prez but the deep, difficult, confusing meanings/expectations about race in this country and how they play out in politics and day-to-day living. I don’t think Reed was simplifying the issues; he was for me shedding an insightful spot of light that has been too dim in mainstream media for a while. Not as big a light as Senator Sanders managed in his glorious stand last week but a really worthwhile one. There’s ample space for more light, and if the bringer of it is someone as majestic and bright as Ishmael Reed, then more please!

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