Obama’s Presser: Misplaced Anger?

There wasn’t anything particularly surprising in the president’s first post-election press conference, which focused on fiscal talks, the Petraeus mess, Benghazi, and (briefly) even Syria and climate change. But the big “news” will probably be his angry response to threats from Sens. McCain and Graham to oppose a hypothetical nomination of Susan Rice as Secretary of State on grounds of her remarks on a Sunday show about the GOP’s little red wagon of Benghazi.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with Obama showing up these bully-boys who are making it plain that GOP obstruction of nominations isn’t going to lapse for a moment (barring implementation of filibuster reform!). But the contrast in tone between his blast over Rice and his handling of the fiscal questions was pretty obvious and troubling.

The president bought the Republican/MSM “fiscal cliff” framing entirely, suggesting (incorrectly) that allowing current law on taxes and spending to prevail beyond January 1 for a single day would be a recession-threatening calamity. He seems to be all in on a strategy of publicly demanding early lame-duck-session legislation restoring the Bush tax cuts on income up to 250k, whether or not it’s part of a broader package. This is precisely the strategy Democrats pursued in 2010 without success. I suppose he had to make a choice between calming everyone down on the “fiscal cliff” scare and augmenting his leverage via the option of productive inaction, or pile onto the panic in hopes of utilizing it to pressure Republicans out of taking middle-class tax cuts hostage this time around. Now we know he’s taking the latter approach.

On a related issue, the president conspicuously passed up an opportunity to say that higher tax rates on the wealthy were essential to any fiscal deal. He did, at least, make it clear he wasn’t going to buy the pig in a poke of a “tax reform process” that would count hypothetical revenues from some loophole-closing exercise without identifying them.

More generally, Obama fell prey to “both sides must compromise” rhetoric that did not acknowledge the total GOP obstructionism of his first term (particularly noticeable in his answer to the cringe-inducing question about how he could improve his relationships with Congress), or set down markers for what he would consider “compromise” from the GOP. And if he felt it important to slap down McCain and Graham, he could have certainly extended his contempt to include not just their treatment of Rice, but the whole Republican witch-hunt over Benghazi, which has already become the foreign-policy equivalent of last year’s GOP frenzy over “Fast and Furious”–an invented “scandal” mainly of to Obama-haters.

The president may well know what he’s doing, and he conveyed a sense of total self-confidence throughout the presser. But this wasn’t the sort of aggressive post-election opening shot on the large and immediate issues that most progressives hoped for.

UPDATE: Meant to mention that I thought Obama’s handling of the silly question about whether he’d scheduled the meeting with Mitt Romney he ritualistically suggested on Election Night was hilarious. Seems he wants to offer Mitt a chance to run some reinventing-government initiative or efficiency study, not negotiate with him as “titular leader” of the GOP on the big issues facing the country. He knows the idea of Romney being anything other than yesterday’s news–to Republicans as much as to Democrats–is too absurd to even consider.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.