Obama's Deficit Speech Marks a Compromise With Reality

Obama White House resists preemptive compromises and instead issues veto threats.

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President Obama's deficit speech today is garnering praise from progressive quarters which had long grown weary of bemoaning his tendency to chase compromise. With the president laying out a progressive vision short on preemptive concessions, the left is celebrating a long-awaited change of course from the White House.

[ See political cartoons about President Obama.]

As Steve Benen writes:

Trying to shape policies in advance to make the GOP happy is out; presenting credible and progressive plans is in. Preemptive compromises are out; veto threats are in. Asking Congress to consider doing the right thing is out; taking a "pass this bill" message to the public is in.

It's possible that for many of the president's critics on the left, it's too late. But for those who've been urging Obama to adopt progressive principles and show a willingness to fight, let's not miss what is plainly true: the president has taken their advice.

It is indeed a striking and important change of course. The extent to which it sticks over the next 14 months remains to be seen. And as telling will be how this new approach translates during actual negotiations: Will President Obama prioritize winning on substance or if Republicans offer some small compromise, will he make concessions which will draw fire from his left in the name of changing Washington (compromise for the sake of compromise)?

[Vote: Are Obama's Proposed Tax Hikes 'Class Warfare'?]

In that regard, the informative must-read of the day regarding Obama's new strategy comes from Ezra Klein, who explains precisely why the president and his team made this "compromise … with reality."

Ezra writes:

Since the election, the Obama administration's working theory has been that the first-best outcome is striking a deal with Speaker John Boehner and, if that fails, the second-best outcome is showing that they genuinely, honestly wanted to strike a deal with Speaker John Boehner.

This failed on two fronts, he notes—first inasmuch as a "grand bargain" was unattainable given the current makeup of the House GOP. The second failure was the lesson that

voters aren't interested in compromises that don't lead to results. Obama looked like a nice guy, and that kept him personally popular. But he looked like an ineffectual leader, and that led his job approval to dip below 40 percent in some polls.

The new thinking, according to Klein, goes like this:

The first-best outcome is still striking a grand bargain with the Republicans, and it's more likely to happen if the Republicans worry that Democrats have found a clear, popular message that might win them the election. … But the second-best outcome isn't necessarily looking like the most reasonable guy in the room. It's looking like the strongest leader in the room.

All of this, he concludes, is a "triumph of the old way of doing things, an admission that Washington proved too hard to change. But it's the only option they have left."

[See a slide show of 5 reasons Obama is the same as Bush, Clinton.]

Give the administration points, then, for acceding to reality (hopefully) in time to right their ship. Or, if you're in the "professional left," recall Victor Laszlo's quote from the end of Casablanca: "Welcome back to the fight. This time I know we'll win."