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BRODER: Obama takes center stage in tax debate

It took a month for Barack Obama to make clear what he has learned from the midterm election “shellacking,” but the time has not been wasted. Future political historians are likely to trace his recovery — and re-election, if that’s what happens — back to decisions made in December.

In these last few days, he has regained the economic initiative from the victorious Republicans, separated himself from the left of his own party and staked a strong claim to the territory where national elections are fought and won: the independent center.

In opting to accommodate reality by acceding to the Republican demand for maintaining all the Bush tax cuts and obtaining a better price than many expected for his concessions, Obama has done almost all that is possible at the moment to create a favorable economic environment for the 2012 campaign. Add in a South Korean trade pact of help to the rebounding auto industry — and the Midwest, that key battleground where Republicans romped in 2010, begins to look salvageable.

Obama still faces great challenges — in managing the world hotspots from Afghanistan to North Korea to Iran, and the unresolved question of how to turn back the threat of runaway debt and deficits.

But after a shaky period where his own leadership image became hazy, he has begun to regain focus as the pragmatic liberal that he is — not the hard-line socialist Republicans make him out to be but a president far more practical and down to Earth than his critics on the liberal flank of the Democratic Party.

He has set the stage for follow-on proposals that can convert the cumbersome tax system into a growth-spurring mechanism — and force Republicans to explain and defend their preference for serving their wealthiest business backers.

That is a winning posture for a president seeking a second term.

Without resort to the obvious “triangulation” repositioning that Bill Clinton employed to recover from the Republican resurgence in 1994 and set the stage for his own second-term win, Obama has managed to place himself where he wants to be: in the center of the American political spectrum.

By yielding temporarily to the GOP on its insistence for preserving the top-bracket tax cuts, Obama has avoided a larger threat to a greater number of voters: the hike in taxes that could easily have jeopardized a fragile economic recovery.

In return, he won an extension of unemployment benefits and, more importantly, a temporary reduction in payroll taxes that will provide a large shot in the arm to economic growth.

When their constituents see the fatter paychecks, Democratic members of Congress will have a hard time sustaining their carping about the lost opportunity to engage the GOP in an old-fashioned campaign against the fat cats.

Also, the $900 billion this deal will add to the national debt increases the pressure on Obama and Congress to undertake the kind of tough-love budgetary changes outlined by the presidential commission on deficits.

But this simply improves the odds for tax reform, an effort that Obama is now perfectly positioned to lead. Expect to see the White House offering a plan to reduce individual and corporate income tax rates in return for purging the IRS code of the thousands of loopholes that benefit special interests.

That will put House Republicans in a position where they have to choose between cooperating in giving Obama a major victory or accepting the opprobrium of defending the status quo against the wishes of tea party voters across the country. While opening that constituency to an Obama foray, the events of the last few weeks have also signaled a clear breach between the president and increasingly unpopular left wing of his congressional party.

The divorce from the Pelosi Democrats has been brewing for a long time, but it came visibly into view when so many House members whined about the tax and budget deal with the Republicans.

If this wasn’t a Sister Souljah moment, it was at least comparable to Bill Clinton’s decision to sign the 1996 welfare reform bill passed by a Republican Congress — a step that sank Bob Dole’s presidential campaign before it really began.

Obama used his news conference Tuesday to define himself, more clearly than ever before, as a raging moderate — a man who recognizes that compromise is the key to serving a broad and diverse set of constituencies, rather than fit some ideological standard of intellectual purity.

This was the best showing for Obama in many months.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at davidbroder@washpost.com. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/davidbroder.