President Obama did not win much substantively with his victory Thursday over House Republicans in their showdown over extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment aid for two months.
But he got a lot politically: a big start toward retiring the perception — fair or not, and even among Democrats — that in a pinch with the other party he will inevitably surrender.
That perception had dogged Mr. Obama for much of the year since gains by Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections gave them control of the House and a share of power in Washington. But it became threatening, both to Mr. Obama’s leverage with Congress and to his prospects for re-election, after the epic summer fight over raising the nation’s debt limit.
In September, the White House set out to change the image of Mr. Obama from compromiser in chief to determined voice of economic populism, beginning a push for a job-creation plan that it viewed as a win-win.
Either Mr. Obama would pass his plan — which was not likely given Republican opposition both to additional stimulus measures and to the higher taxes on the wealthy that he proposed to offset the package’s cost — or he would get political credit for trying, given the popularity of the plan’s individual provisions.
And he would make it clear that Republicans would obstruct anything he proposed, especially if it meant higher taxes on the rich.
What surprised the administration, and not least Mr. Obama, was how much House Republicans would contribute toward the White House’s goal through their miscalculations in waging this holiday-season showdown over tax cuts for 160 million workers and assistance for several million jobless Americans.
The stand by House Republicans, which openly divided the party and put them in conflict with Senate Republicans, helped Mr. Obama perhaps as much as anything the White House and Congressional Democrats did.
Vin Weber, a Republican Party strategist and former congressman, acknowledged that Mr. Obama had won at least “a nice tactical victory to end the year” as well as higher approval ratings in recent polls.
Mr. Weber said he learned long ago from a pollster to President Ronald Reagan that “one of the central ingredients of a president’s approval rating is the public’s sense of his ability to dominate Congress.”
“The substantive issues,” he said, “are secondary.”
“What Republicans in the House didn’t understand — and I love these guys by and large — but what they didn’t understand is that you don’t fight every issue,” Mr. Weber added. “And if you’re going to fight an issue like this, you’re going to give him a victory and hurt yourself in the process.”
As glum and divided as Republicans were at the outcome, Democrats were celebrating that Mr. Obama had stuck by the united front he forged with them this fall.
“The White House must feel pretty good about muscling home a victory for the middle class,” said John Podesta, chairman of the liberal Center for American Progress and a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. “And importantly for the fights of 2012, they learned those muscles work.”
Obama closed GOP 'exit ramp'
Congressional Democrats have long been suspicious that Mr. Obama was too eager to cut deals with Republicans that would benefit him politically but not his party — by reducing Medicare and Social Security spending, for example, to get a so-called grand budget bargain. But this week they freely credited him with the victory, for his persistence and his refusal in the endgame to negotiate with House Republicans.
An aide to Congressional Democratic leaders said, “The White House just went all in and closed off the House G.O.P.’s hoped-for exit ramp”— that is, Republicans’ belief that Mr. Obama would ultimately would give in rather than risk blame if payroll taxes went up for millions on Jan. 1.
For the White House, which has long chafed at the criticism that Mr. Obama has been a soft touch for Congressional Republicans, the outcome was vindication.
Last December, liberal Democrats were outraged when Mr. Obama agreed to extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts for the rich by an additional two years, after having campaigned to end them.
The White House said that was the price to get Republicans, who were newly emboldened by their election victories, to support a one-year payroll tax cut and extended unemployment aid — without which, the administration and many economists believed, the economy could tip into another recession.
Most galling to the White House, however, has been the lingering criticism from Democratic insiders and grass-roots supporters alike about the August debt-limit deal. In that compromise, Mr. Obama accepted deep spending cuts but Republicans blocked any tax increases.
A trap was set
Mr. Obama had no choice but to compromise then, his aides argued; the nation risked economic calamity if it could no longer borrow to pay its debts, and Mr. Obama’s Republican adversaries professed to be willing to see that happen.
Even so, administration officials said, the deal was not only better than the critics suggested but it helped set the trap that House Republicans walked into this month.
The deal increased the debt ceiling through 2012, not to this month as some Republicans had wanted, and thereby removed the threat of default from Republicans’ end-of-the-year bargaining arsenal. With the stakes much lower, after August Mr. Obama was liberated to press a harder bargain. Starting in September with his jobs package, he did.
“For the first time I think you see a kind of consistency and coherency in terms of an economic message,” Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said of Mr. Obama. “The pivot point was the jobs speech, and the jobs speech occurred after he had dealt with the extension of the tax cuts and dealt with the debt ceiling. Those two things freed him up to do what he’s been doing.”
Also a factor was the hard lesson Mr. Obama learned from his past negotiations with Speaker John A. Boehner, first in the spring talks over this year’s domestic spending and then in their summer effort for the grand bargain to reduce long-term debt: Mr. Boehner cannot deliver his defiantly antigovernment and Tea Party-inspired majority in the House.
When that proved true yet again, Mr. Obama was bolstered just as Mr. Boehner was further undermined. Whether Mr. Obama continues to play a strong hand will be tested soon — when Congress reconvenes in January to resume the fight over a full-year extension.
This article, headlined "A Victory Considerably Aided by the Other Side," first appeared in The New York Times.