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Obama’s Tough Words for Liberals: Truth or Dare?

President Obama, already under scrutiny from some liberal groups for having agreed with Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax cuts across all income brackets, would seem have invited additional criticism from the left with his unforgiving rhetoric toward them in his press conference this afternoon.

In response to a question from the Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Weisman, Mr. Obama likened the debate over tax policy to the one that took place earlier in his term over his health care bill, which dissatisfied some liberals because it did not include a public health insurance option.

I’m not sure that Mr. Obama’s comparison quite holds. The public option — though advocated for enthusiastically by liberal bloggers and interest groups — was by and large a boutique issue that ranked low on the priority list for most voters. And the health care bill was quite popular among liberals by the time it eventually passed.

Tax policy, on the other hand, is a little more central to the liberal worldview.

At the same time, Mr. Obama’s compromise with the Republicans — which has yet to pass the Congress — also contains some provisions that liberals might be pleased with, like extending unemployment benefits and reducing the rate of the payroll tax, which has a proportionately larger effect on low- and middle-income earners. The relatively poor reviews that Mr. Obama has received from some liberal groups so far underscores how his messaging on the tax cuts could become complicated along a number of dimensions.

But if Mr. Obama’s hand was somewhat forced in acceding to a compromise with the G.O.P. — which on Saturday voted unanimously to block a Senate proposal to extend the tax cuts only at incomes below $250,000 — his relatively combative attitude toward his liberal critics at his press conference today would seem to be entirely discretionary.

What Mr. Obama may be banking on is not necessarily that some liberal groups won’t be annoyed with him, but that they may have nowhere else to turn. Essentially, it amounts to a dare.

Mr. Obama did lose some standing among liberals during the first 22 months of his term, as he did with essentially every other political and demographic group. His Gallup approval rating declined from an average of 88 percent among liberals during the first six months of his term to 75 percent between July and October of this year in advance of the midterm elections — although some of the decline came among liberal-leaning independents and Republicans, and his loss of stature was smaller among liberal Democrats.

How much did this hurt the Democrats in last month’s election?

Actually, there is not much evidence that it hurt them at all.

According to the exit poll of voting for Congress, 90 percent of self-described liberal voters selected the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, in contrast to 8 percent who voted for the Republican. This percentage was actually up slightly from two years earlier, when 87 percent of liberal voters backed the Democratic candidate for the House.

In addition, the share of liberal voters as a percentage of the overall electorate was not significantly changed from recent years. It was 20 percent, according to the exit poll; by comparison, it had been between 20 and 22 percent in elections from 2004 through 2008.

Instead, Democrats’ troubles were almost entirely caused by conservatives turning out at higher rates in place of moderates. The share of conservatives of the electorate increased to 42 percent in 2010 from 34 percent in 2008, according to the exit poll. And just 13 percent of these conservatives voted for Democrats, as compared to 23 percent in 2008.

This is not to suggest that the pattern will necessarily be the same in 2012. In contrast to this year — when Mr. Obama ultimately had much to show off to liberals, including a health care bill and a financial regulation package — it is difficult to see how any major liberal priories will be advanced once Republicans take over the House in January. But Democrats could still pass some proposals popular with liberals, like the reversal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, before the 111th Congress concludes its business later this month.

Still, just because liberals are disappointed with Mr. Obama does not necessarily mean they will fail to turn out and vote for him when the only other choice is a Republican. In some ways, it probably helps Mr. Obama that the country has become so polarized and that liberals view Republicans as such an unacceptable alternative, and vice versa. The prospect of a President Palin or a President Gingrich would surely motivate most liberals to vote — and even comparatively moderate Republican candidates like Mitt Romney will be under pressure to show their conservative stripes during the l Republican primaries and are likely to campaign on policies, like a repeal of the health care bill, that liberals overwhelmingly object to.

Mr. Obama, of course, could face a primary challenge of his own. But so far, it is probably too soon to conclude whether any such challenge would potentially be viable. Reporters and analysts have a tendency to conflate the sentiments of major liberal blogs and activist groups with the much larger group of voters that constitute the liberal base, including many who are relatively disinterested in the day-to-day dealmaking in Washington but who can be counted on to vote Democratic nevertheless; opinion among the two groups is correlated, but not always perfectly aligned.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.