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Obama: Clark Kent or Superman?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
September 21, 2011 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: President Obama is taking tougher stands
  • She says Republicans signaled inflexibility on taxes
  • In return, Obama is demanding revenue increases, she says
  • Borger: Obama gaining credit from base, but chances of a deal are slim

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is CNN's chief political analyst, appearing regularly on shows such as "AC360," "The Situation Room," "John King USA" and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- What did you do over your summer vacation?

If you're President Obama, you've had a bit of a transformation. That is, from the mild-mannered Clark Kent into, well, Superman.

Or something like that.

When we last left this story, President Obama was trying to be the measured adult in the room, compromising over the debt ceiling to get a deal. In the end, it wasn't the "grand bargain" that Obama wanted. Liberals argued that it was awful, too -- chastising the president for negotiating with himself. And Republicans complained that they needed more spending cuts. And, oh, by the way, they still wanted to repeal health care reform.

In other words, an unsatisfactory experience for all.

So when Obama came back to D.C. this fall, the feeling inside the White House was that something had to change. The bad news: Mr. Adult (aka Mr. Compromise) had sunk to new lows in the ratings. The good news: Congress had sunk even lower. Way lower. Then House Speaker John Boehner gave a speech outlining his demands for the deficit reduction "supercommittee." Top of the list: no new taxes.

Shocking, I know.

That about did it. The White House figured it had no partner for peace. The man who had almost signed on to the grand bargain -- with some tax increases and entitlement cuts -- wasn't about to come back to the table anytime soon.

The next step: play the game.

The president outlined his demand for the debt reduction supercommittee: no spending cuts for the middle class without commensurate tax increases on the wealthy. No proposals for long-term entitlement reform. But there was a catchy bumper sticker: the Buffett Rule. Billionaires should not pay a lower tax rate than the rest of us.

It's not intellectually satisfying. Nor does it improve the chances for a deal out of the supercommittee that can get anywhere in Congress. It's politics, plain and simple.

In fact, the strategy does one big thing: It reunites the president with the base of the Democratic Party, which finally had something to cheer. When Barack Obama came out swinging this week, threatening to veto any deficit reduction measure without a balance of new taxes and spending cuts, there was joy among liberals. Obama had finally come home.

For the rest of us, well, it was a dismal peek at reality. Who can really fault the White House for playing politics with Republicans who have refused to cut the big deals? After all, the GOP presidential candidates, by and large, are still complaining that Congress agreed to raise the debt ceiling. After Boehner lay down his laws, Obama had to do the same. He could no longer negotiate with himself.

So he joined the game. Maybe it's the opening salvo, and maybe something will come of this kabuki. But there is a final calculation here: if nothing comes out of the supercommittee, the president would be less damaged than the Congress.

As for the rest of us, we're still Waiting for Superman. The real one.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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