The new 'feisty, defiant' Obama: 5 theories

The president insists on new taxes on the super-rich and dares the GOP to stick up for millionaires while dissing the poor. What's gotten into Obama?  

In the Rose Garden on Monday, an unrestrained President Obama demanded new taxes on the super wealthy.
(Image credit: Brooks Kraft/Corbis)

President Obama came out swinging Monday at the Rose Garden unveiling of his plan to reduce the federal deficit by roughly $3 trillion. He called for $1.5 trillion in new taxes, mostly from America's highest earners, and threatened to veto any bill that cuts Medicare or Social Security without significant new revenue from millionaires. Obama said it was only fair for the super-rich to pay more at a time when they are doing well and the middle class is hurting. "Either we have to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share, or we have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare, or gut education," Obama said. "This is not class warfare. It's math." Democrats were thrilled with Obama's new "feisty, defiant" playbook. But why switch from conciliator-in-chief now? Here, five theories:

1. Leading from the middle clearly wasn't working

Obama's new budget plan is "unrealistic, highly partisan, and a non-starter on Capitol Hill," says Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. And "that's what's so good about it." Instead of showing up for a game of strip poker in his boxers, Obama "showed that he is finally learning to negotiate" with a hostile partner. It's taken Obama 33 months to realize he "cannot govern from the center by striking deals with Republicans," says Brad DeLong at Grasping Reality. Better late than never.

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2. This is still a bid for a "grand bargain"

On the surface, the White House has changed tack, says Ezra Klein at The Washington Post. But Obama's "first-best outcome is still striking a grand bargain with Republicans." The theory is that the GOP is more likely to negotiate if Obama's populist rhetoric helps Democrats win the message war. And even if that doesn't work, Obama will still look "like the strongest leader in the room."

3. The "professional Left" forced his hand

Obama's change in tone and policy is welcome, but he "deserves no credit," says Taylor Marsh at her blog. "He was dragged to this point by the 'professional Left' and the polls," which show him losing not just independents but also Democrats. Yes, "the 'professional Left' — which has long argued that showing fight is far more important to independents than chasing after compromise for its own sake — is finally getting what it wants," says Greg Sargent at The Washington Post.

4. Obama's just bluffing

The president is offering "little more than empty rhetoric," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. Obama's big tough-guy move is a veto threat if the congressional deficit super committee cuts Medicare but doesn't raise taxes. Not only has Obama "made these threats before and never followed through," but if he does veto such a plan, the trigger mechanism agreed to in the debt-ceiling deal would give the GOP automatic cuts with no new taxes. So what incentive do they have to cave?

5. He thinks he's finally playing with a good hand

Obama is being more aggressive because he "doesn't fear the super committee trigger," says Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post. And right or wrong, "he suspects that the GOP might," especially the heavy defense cuts that would be automatically triggered if no deal is reached. So unlike the last showdown, "there's no Republican 'crazy person' strategy to gain leverage" over a president unwilling to let the GOP "just blow everything up." If that brings the GOP to the negotiating table, Obama will negotiate "from a much stronger position."

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