Not looking for friends

After Democrats begged him to fight, and Republicans insisted he engage, President Obama did both this week, simultaneously serving up a battle cry as well as bipartisanship. It came with a scolding for both parties. Political adversaries were warned not to consider themselves newfound friends of the president, while allies were put on notice that Democratic unity could become even more elusive than it is today.

Members of both parties should be prepared that more of this is coming. The return of Obama, the post-partisan president, isn’t likely to make him friends in Washington, but that’s the point. Gone is the notion that Obama can bring the parties together and change the way business is done in Washington. He will continue to condemn partisanship, but with some cunning he plans to strike deals with partisans on both sides. All the while Obama hopes the voters will soon understand he remains committed to pragmatism and results.

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Embracing a tax-cut deal that satisfies Republican demands has infuriated Democrats, broken a campaign pledge and likened the president to a hostage. But it has also shown he is now prepared to govern in the center to win back nonpartisan voters who abandoned him after he presided over two years of an unprecedented and partisan expansion of government and spending. To do so, Obama knows he must mitigate voter anger that, if unchanged, will continue to reward Republicans. “The president needs to calm the anger against Washington, and he needs to show he can lead a divided government,” said a senior Democratic leadership aide familiar with White House deliberations.

Liberal rage might alter or kill the compromise with which Obama has ushered in his new era, and nearly $1 trillion in new borrowed deficit spending will undoubtedly become a painful matter for another painful day next year. But Obama knows that day will come with Republicans sharing responsibility for governing and — because of the tax-cut deal — for new deficit levels as well.

For now Obama would like to get to the House floor to deliver a State of the Union Address that highlights appealing accomplishments, a speech where he would spend more time on discussing tax breaks and refunds he provided to the employed and extended unemployment insurance he provided to the unemployed rather than a review of unpopular initiatives like healthcare reform and the first stimulus package.

And beyond stopping tax hikes, Obama, along with his new GOP partners, believe that the plan will spur growth. White House officials touted the stimulative effects of the package this week, maintaining it could pump up to $300 billion into the economy next year, as well as economist Mark Zandi’s assessment that such a plan would add more than 1.6 million jobs and reduce unemployment to 8.5 percent by the end of 2011.

Should Stimulus No. 2 succeed and the economy improve, Obama’s political fortunes will improve as well. If the tax cuts fail to jolt the economy, Obama will apologize to Paul Krugman and fire up Democrats with a supply-side-bashing campaign against tax cuts for the wealthy that will expire in 2012.

President Obama’s a-pox-on-both-your-houses leadership won’t bring him easy wins, and for the time being it promises to drive base Democrats completely batty. But while Democrats feel thrown under the bus, Republicans should feel relieved they know his reelection strategy before the campaign even begins. Obama will run against Washington as the grown-up in chief. He is banking on Republicans, as they govern with him, acting childish. If they do, and they anger independent voters, then Obama might beat them at their game.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.