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Obama finds his backbone

Even though the president is fighting them right now, liberals should be relieved: His next battle may be on their behalf.

For the first time in my adult lifetime (to paraphrase Michelle Obama), I am really proud of President Obama.

I'm not particularly proud of the tax-cut deal he and the Republicans negotiated. But I'm proud that he has finally stood firm against the likes of Peter DeFazio.

DeFazio, a backbencher from Oregon and one of the hard-core liberals in the House, authored Thursday's Democratic caucus resolution attempting to prevent the tax compromise from coming to a vote. "We're standing up to him," DeFazio exulted. He claimed "nearly unanimous" opposition to the tax package - a curious assertion given that only 54 of 255 House Democrats signed a letter opposing the deal.

But rather than caving in to the liberal complaints and allowing Democrats on Capitol Hill to take the lead - as he did to his peril over the last two years - Obama has pushed back with the full force of his office. In private persuasion and in public comments, the White House has delivered to disgruntled liberals a message summed up by Vice President Biden in a private session with lawmakers on Wednesday: Take it or leave it.

This is a hopeful sign that Obama has learned the lessons of the health-care debate, when he acceded too easily to the wishes of Hill Democrats, allowing them to slow the legislation and engage in a protracted debate on the public option. Months of delay gave the Republicans time to make their case against "socialism" and prevented action on more pressing issues, such as job creation. Democrats paid for that with 63 seats.

Things began the same way this time. The White House left matters up to congressional Democrats, who postponed a vote on taxes until after the election. But when lawmakers continued the foot-dragging, Obama cut them out of the negotiations.

The rift isn't about ideology; Obama knows as well as DeFazio that cutting the estate tax is a dumb way to stimulate the economy. It's about strategy: The alternative to a deal, administration officials say, was to waste the next few months fighting over taxes - putting Democrats on the hook for the voter anger and economic damage that would come from an increase in rates on Jan. 1 - only to wind up with a deal that, with Republicans controlling the House, likely would be worse.

Inevitably, Democrats on the Hill now complain that Obama's deal is "grossly unfair." In a measure of the intellectual depth of the rebellion, House Democrats could be heard during their caucus meeting on Thursday chanting "Just say no!" and, led by Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, "No we can't!"

Ringleader DeFazio has played the role of irritant before. During a House Democratic caucus meeting with Obama last year, he went to the microphone to give his laundry list of complaints about the White House. Replied Obama: "Don't think we're not keeping score, brother."

But if Obama kept score then, it was private. Now he is publicly taking on the DeFazio crowd, with his talk of "sanctimonious" liberals and his warning that his opponents would be blamed for "smaller paychecks" and "fewer jobs." For once, reporters could tell Obama was angry without asking White House press secretary Robert Gibbs for evidence. (Did he pound the table?)

That was coupled with some hardball politics (Larry Summers' warning that rejecting the package would return the economy to recession) and scores of press releases from the White House (7:28 p.m. Thursday: "Long Beach Mayor Backs Middle Class Tax Cut Framework"). White House ally Al Sharpton, the activist New York minister, attacked Weiner, who wants to run for New York mayor, for his "over the top" criticism of Obama.

Obama will almost certainly prevail. There are enough votes in the Senate to pass the compromise, and House Democrats will surrender - or face long-term minority status as the ones who raised taxes on all Americans and sent the economy into a double-dip. The symbolic protest will be the sad last act of Nancy Pelosi's speakership.

Liberals, if they can see beyond their pique, should realize that the emergence of forceful leadership by Obama could be good for them. This time, he stood against his Democratic colleagues, but there's reason to hope that he'll show his newly discovered spine to the Republicans the next time.

One White House official told me Obama will build a "shifting set of coalitions, issue by issue," over the next two years. If so, and if Obama will no longer allow those in the Capitol to run his presidency, he'll have a strong couple of years.