WASHINGTON — A year ago, the holiday showdown between President Barack Obama and Congress ended with a White House compromise and a deal to extend Bush-era tax cuts, a move that left many Democrats infuriated.
This time, however, as Obama and congressional Republicans joust over how to extend a Social Security payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, progressive Democrats and independent analysts say it's a different chapter: The stakes of the showdown aren't as high and liberals say the administration is showing a strengthened presidential spine.
"He's made a change in his own strategy after the debt-limit debacle — after making concessions and every time being spit in the face, he's decided enough of that," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal group. "I think he feels he's in a much stronger position to carry this forward."
Liberal anger at Obama peaked over the summer as the White House scrapped clean air regulations and unions expressed frustration that Obama wasn't engaged on the jobs front. But analysts suggest much of that is likely to lift as the election nears.
"Alienation of the base becomes less and less likely as the campaign season approaches," said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. "The base has become more concerned about the eventual Republican nominee."
Polls show Obama in a virtual tie with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, even though Romney trails former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in polls of Republicans. An AP-Gfk poll released Wednesday and conducted Dec. 8-12 found Obama with 47 percent and Romney at 46 percent, while Obama led Gingrich by 51 percent to 42 percent.
"The base's doubts about Obama will diminish as the campaign season unfolds," Baker predicted.
A year ago, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action was fielding complaints that Obama would yield to Republicans on the Bush-era tax cuts, said national director Michael Wilson.
"We were among the folks who thought it was caving, who thought that no deal was better than what we got," Wilson said. "This time, the White House has been consistent and has stuck to their message. They're far more focused.'
At the Capitol, Democrats seem unusually united behind the president. A year ago, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, was not pleased that tax cuts for the wealthy would be extended. But he voted yes for the package, which included extended unemployment benefits and middle-class tax breaks.
"That's not the way we should legislate," he said at the time, "but frankly, in the end, we have to pay the ransom."
This time, Brown was unequivocal when asked if Obama was taking the right tone in this year's debate over the tax and spending packages.
"I think he knows what he's doing and where he's going," Brown said.
At the crux of the issue is how to pay for the tax cut and unemployment benefits measure: Democrats support a surtax on millionaires, but Republicans say that's a non-starter. On Wednesday, Democratic leaders reportedly dropped their insistence on the millionaires' tax.
Democrats suggest it's likely to happen eventually — or Congress will pass a measure without offsetting its price tag — rather than risk leaving town and be portrayed as raising taxes.
Senior administration officials who spoke to reporters Tuesday on the condition of anonymity said they believe Obama already has scored a victory by changing the debate to not whether the payroll tax should be extended, but how to pay for it.
"We're still not there, but if it's extended, I do think a fair reading will be because the president went out there ... put it front and center and really stayed with it," the official said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that the administration believes Congress will get the bill done before leaving Washington for the holidays.
He said that Congress may face voter pressure — noting a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found many judged this Congress to be "one of the worst" in U.S. history.
"I guess if they want to cement that role, they could leave town without doing anything on the payroll tax," Carney said. "We don't think they'll do that."
The president has vowed to scrap his holiday and stay in town as long as it takes. It could get lonely. The first lady's office announced Wednesday that Michelle Obama "and her daughters" will leave the White House late Friday for the family's "annual holiday trip to see family in the president's home state of Hawaii."
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