‘Whether or not’ he’s ‘itching for a fight’

‘WHETHER OR NOT’ HE’S ‘ITCHING FOR A FIGHT’…. In early December, shortly after the parties reached an agreement on a temporary tax policy, President Obama held a press conference to talk about the deal. NBC’s Chuck Todd asked a good question that’s worth revisiting.

“[A]ren’t you telegraphing … a negotiating strategy of how the Republicans can beat you in negotiations all the way through the next year”? Todd asked. “Because they can just stick to their guns, stay united, be ‘unwilling to budge’ — to use your words — and force you to capitulate?”

The president didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think so. And the reason is because this is a very unique circumstance. This is a situation in which tens of millions of people would be directly damaged and immediately damaged, and at a time when the economy is just about to recover. […]

“And 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 on my side on a whole bunch of these fights. But right now I want to make sure that the American people aren’t hurt because we’re having a political fight, and I think that this agreement accomplishes that.”

At the time, this seemed, at least to me, like a plausible defense. Obama wanted an extension of unemployment benefits and to prevent a middle-class tax increase. With an imposing deadline, Republicans wouldn’t budge on either point, so the White House struck a deal. These were “unique circumstances.”

Except, the circumstances may not have been unique at all. We saw a situation in which Republicans were prepared to shut down the government, forcing the president to strike a deal he didn’t want to make. We see Republicans poised to create a global crisis by blocking a debt-ceiling increase, pushing the president again into a situation where he may have to strike another deal. We see the next fiscal year’s budget fight coming down the pike, and another shutdown threat.

The pattern is hard to miss — a broad threat emerges, Republicans exploit through a hostage strategy, and the president, playing the role of responsible grown-up, takes steps to protect those who’d be “directly and immediately damaged.”

Much of this isn’t the president’s fault. Obama didn’t radicalize the Republican Party; Obama didn’t hand the House of Representatives to extremists; Obama didn’t force the GOP to abuse filibuster rules last year and leave the Senate a dysfunctional mess; Obama didn’t convince Republicans to repeatedly turn to a petulant hostage strartegy.

But having said all of that, Chuck Todd’s question in early December looks rather prescient today.

Look again at that Obama response: “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.”

They’re testing you, Mr. President. Time to show them you’re still itching for a fight.