It is the nature of American politics and our modern media environment that presidents almost always win political standoffs with Congress, especially when their very public stands seem principled and have popular support. This is why it pains me when people pretend that Obama got the best deal he could on the Bush tax rates.

As we saw during the government shutdown in the 1990s, the President almost always wins a showdown with Congress for a few clear reasons related to the nature of our system.

  • The President is always the best-known politician in the country. Like him or not, basically everyone knows who he is, which is more than you can say about John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.
  • The President can more easily can claim the popular mandate as the only nationally elected official. Roughly 70,000,000 Americans voted for Obama. Just under a million actually voted for McConnell, and Boehner only directly received roughly 140,000 votes.
  • Even though the president’s current job approval numbers are hanging in the mid-40s, his job approval numbers are way above the job approval numbers of congressional Republicans.
  • The bully pulpit. When the President speaks, people listen. He can get all the major networks to interrupt their programs to cover his special addresses. When he makes statements, they always appear in the news. The president’s ability to speak directly to the people through the media simply isn’t matched by any Congressional leader.

What this all means is that if the president issues a public veto threat in order to keep a major promise, that has popular support, the President is almost always going to win in the end.

Based on history and the nature of our system, I reject argument put forward by individuals, like Matt Bai, that Obama would some how lose a political standoff with Congress over keeping one of his biggest campaign promises.

On the other hand, had Mr. Obama held the line on principle and allowed all the cuts to expire, as some Democrats would have preferred, the public debate in January would most likely have come down to which of the two parties was responsible for letting middle-class taxes rise during a recession. It’s an argument that Democrats, historically vulnerable on taxes and already fending off charges of expanding government, would probably have lost.

Gaming this out, I don’t see how President Obama would have lost, if several weeks ago, he would have made a big public threat to veto any tax bill that broke his campaign promise by extending the tax cuts for millionaires. Every day the fight dragged on, the President would go out making statements about how absurd it was that Republicans would hold everyone hostage for a handful of millionaires.

The day the tax cuts expired, he could be on every national TV network shaking his head in disbelief that Republicans were prepared to make everyone suffer to protect the wealthy. With the bully pulpit, he could easily win the messaging war.

In the end, the Republicans have much more to lose. More than anything, their brand is tax cuts for everyone. If the fight framed them as only caring about tax cuts for the rich and not giving a darn about everyone else’s tax rates, it could be politically devastating. It seems clear the Republicans were afraid of this showdown for this exact reason when in September John Boehner admitted if the only option was to extend only the tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 he would vote for it.

It’s true that if the tax cuts were allowed to expire, the blame game would start, but with the president holding a popular, principled position, and the much larger megaphone to frame the debate, the chances were good he would have come out the victor.

It is just the nature of our system that when a fairly popular President shows real leadership, taking a firm principled veto threat against an extremely unpopular Congress, he is usually going to win.

If Obama actually chose to fight for his tax position with his biggest tool, the veto threat, he probably could have won. If you are going to justify broken promises as the “politics of the possible,” your duty at least requires using every tool available to first push the edges of possibility.