Minutes before President Obama celebrated his administration’s bipartisan tax deal, a partisan — for a moment — stole the spotlight. As House and Senate members filed into the White House auditorium, Rev. Al Sharpton, the controversial civil-rights activist, held court in the front row, mingling and grinning for snapshots.
Bigger names arrived soon after, and the reverend quickly faded into the background as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Jason Furman, Sen. Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D., Fla.), and Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.) huddled near the stage, sending the photographers into a tizzy.
After the crowd settled, Vice President Joe Biden was the first to the podium, with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), and Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), among others, looking on. Baucus, perhaps reflecting the spirited battle to pass the deal through Congress, wore a large band-aid on his forehead.
Biden began his brief speech by calling the tax agreement an “important deal,” not, he noted, a “big deal,” which drew laughs — a reminder of Biden’s calling Obamacare’s passage a “big [expletive] deal” earlier this year. The veep then turned to . . . Edmund Burke, which, I noticed, drew pursed lips from McConnell. Biden quoted Burke on the nature of compromise, then praised McConnell for his work.
“The famed 18th century British statesman, Edmund Burke, once said, ‘All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter,’” Biden said. “Today, we have a crystal clear example of what he meant.”
Obama then appeared, to cheers from the crowd of staffers, congressional leaders, and administration officials. The president began his remarks by giving credit to Biden for helping to pass the deal. Biden traveled to Capitol Hill twice in recent days to lobby Republicans and on-the-fence Democrats.
The president then expressed thanks to McConnell and Senate Republicans for crafting a tax-relief package, calling it “good news” for the American people. “First and foremost, the legislation I’m about to sign is a substantial victory for middle-class families across the country,” he said. “They’re the ones hit hardest by the recession we’ve endured. They’re the ones who need relief right now. And that’s what is at the heart of this bill.”
“Not only will middle-class Americans avoid a tax increase, but tens of millions of Americans will start the new year off right by opening their first paycheck to see that it’s actually larger than the one they get right now,” Obama said. “This is real money and will make a real difference in people’s lives.”
But Obama wasn’t all roses. “Candidly speaking, there are some elements of this legislation that I don’t like. There are some elements that members of my party don’t like,” he said. “There are some elements that Republicans here today don’t like. That’s the nature of compromise — yielding on something each of us cares about to move forward on what all of us care about. And right now, what all of us care about is growing the American economy and creating jobs for the American people.”
“Taken as a whole, that’s what this package of tax relief is going to do,” Obama said. “It’s a good deal for the American people. This is progress.”
Of course, Obama said, “there will be moments, I am certain, over the next couple of years, in which the holiday spirit won’t be as abundant as it is today.”
“Moreover, we have got to make some difficult choices ahead when it comes to tackling the deficit. In some ways, this was easier than some of the tougher choices we’re going to have to make next year,” Obama continued. “There will be times when we won’t agree, and we’ll have to work through those times together. But the fact is, I don’t think that either party has cornered the market on good ideas. And I want to draw on the best thinking from both sides.”
The president wrapped up by sounding an optimistic note about future bipartisan efforts. In the future, he said, by putting aside “political games,” both parties can keep “the spirit” of this tax deal alive.
“The final product proves when we can put aside the partisanship and the political games, when we can put aside what’s good for some of us in favor of what’s good for all of us, we can get a lot done,” Obama said. “And if we can keep doing it, if we can keep that spirit, I’m hopeful that we won’t just reinvigorate this economy and restore the American Dream for all who work for it. I’m also hopeful that we might refresh the American people’s faith in the capability of their leaders to govern in challenging times.”
As the president concluded the signing, Democrats swarmed and cheered. But both the president and Biden pointedly reached out to firmly shake McConnell’s hand before making their way back to the Oval Office. McConnell nodded, in his usual somber way, shook hands, and then made his way back to the Capitol. For a few minutes, it was a warm scene. But tomorrow’s legislative battles still loom over the political landscape. As, it seems, does Sharpton.