The President’s comments on the fiscal negotiations in the Senate were diffident, to say the least. Their main substantive burden was to make it plain that a “small deal” mainly dealing with tax provisions would not foreclose additional “sacrifices” on the tax front–presumably in the form of limitations on deductions–in a later deal designed to deal with the debt limit and spending sequestrations. And there were a lot more semi-contemptuous references to “Republicans” than he has usually made in non-campaign remarks (and even many campaign remarks). There’s already considerable speculation on Twitter that he was trying to reassure Democrats he hasn’t given up leverage by a pre-“cliff” agreement on taxes.

Republicans immediately started whining about Obama’s tone, and the right-wing blogosphere is already beginning to demand defeat of any deal–however “small” or contingent–that doesn’t include significant spending cuts.

It’s possible the White House thinks McConnell either doesn’t intend to make a deal, or can’t keep his Conference from killing it and/or filibustering it; then there’s the issue of whether John Boehner is in a position to keep his promise to bring a Senate-passed deal up for an up-or-down vote even if a majority of House Republicans aren’t on board. More likely Obama is just positioning himself for what could be the far more consequential fight that a “small deal” will simply delay a few weeks.

One silly wrinkle is that the House appears almost certain to delay any vote until after tonight so that it will be voting on a tax cut rather than a tax increase, which is yet another piece of evidence that the “cliff” hysteria is just that. But you wouldn’t know it from watching CNN, which is featuring one of those “countdown clocks” until midnight at the bottom of the screen.

No wonder Obama sounded sarcastic and annoyed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.