If any US political pundit was to sum up the president's year after the first week in November, it would have been difficult to be positive. And yet, barely six weeks later, everyone is acknowledging his stunning comeback. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Astonishingly, the Obama administration seems to have trumped Lazarus and risen from the politically dead after two full months, rather than just the four days allotted Lazarus. In a striking recognition of this miraculous event, influential neo-con columnist Charles Krauthammer related how.
“‘Harry Reid has eaten our lunch,’ said Senator Lindsey Graham, lamenting his side’s ‘capitulation’ in the lame-duck session. Yes, but it was less Harry than Barry. Obama came back with a vengeance. His string of lame-duck successes is a singular political achievement. Because of it, the epic battles of the 112th Congress begin on what would have seemed impossible just one month ago – a level playing field.”
Until a short while ago, Barack Obama’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year seemed to mimic one of those films where the intrepid explorers are paddling furiously in a canoe on a raging river. They’ve just shot through a tremendous run of white-water rapids and one character says to the other, “Whew, we survived that!” – until the camera pulls back to reveal the canoe headed for a gigantic waterfall of Victoria Falls proportions, just around the next bend.
What with an intractable Middle East stalemate, the Afghan War and its oozing spread into an increasingly troubled Pakistan, a tough, united, resurgent Republican opposition in congress, the resulting intractable budget battles there, Republican posturing as the country moves towards the 2012 election primaries, the growing struggle with a surging China – and lest we forget – the nation’s sluggish economy and stubborn unemployment numbers, the Obama administration seemed destined to mimic King Canute and his battle with the waves. And with Canute’s same degree of success.
One year ago, over the Christmas-New Year break, Obama and his advisors were tied up with the aftermath of lapses of airline security that had led to the would-be underwear bomber’s boarding of a commercial airplane on Christmas Day. What followed through 2010 was a litany of setbacks that seemed to move inexorably on to the electoral “shellacking” in the November midterm election. Paradoxically, even his successes seemed part of failure. Health care reform finally passed congress, but it stoked the wrath of Republicans and Tea Party supporters. General Motors and the banks were repaying their earlier loans, but that led to claims the Obama administration had helped the rich and powerful and sloughed off the rest. American combat operations in Iraq were winding down, but that only cast the spotlight on nearby Afghanistan. The economic recovery was fitful at best, then the Gulf Coast oil spill went on for months, the healthcare law was too complicated, the unemployment rate stayed high and the national political discourse moved well past abrasive.
In January, Republican Scott Brown took the Massachusetts Senate seat that had been held by the late Ted Kennedy for nearly a lifetime, ending the Democrats’ 60-vote majority – an event that suddenly made Obama’s entire legislative agenda problematic. A month later, Obama was being told by then-House Republican minority leader John Boehner and his House deputy, Eric Cantor, that “ ‘Bipartisanship’ is not writing proposals of your own behind closed doors, then unveiling them and demanding Republican support”. Portents of things to come.
In March, the Democrats stumbled across the finish line for passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, amid an orgy of last-minute horse-trading that sullied the final outcome in many eyes. Despite reaching a legislative triumph that had eluded presidents since Theodore Roosevelt, as Boehner told reporters of Obama’s triumph, “Can you say it was done openly, with transparency and accountability, without back-room deals? Hell, no, you can’t!” And the public mood on the measure was hardly the triumphal march Democrats had clearly expected.
By April, Obama’s approval rating had dipped below 50% and then came the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig accident. With an omnipresent video feed from a mile below the surface, the world fixated on a disaster that neither government nor industry could end. In the next month, the Tea Party movement scored its first major victory unseating an incumbent Republican senator Bob Bennett at a raucous Republican state convention. Meanwhile, just before the end of May, American military deaths in Afghanistan reached the thousand mark, highlighting yet another problem that seemed beyond the Obama administration’s ability to resolve.
As the oil spill went on through the summer, highly regarded presidential scholar Fred Greenstein despaired of Obama, “He’s certainly moved from seeming to walk on water to really slogging in the mud, the oil-filled mud if you will. He is hitting a lot of existential obstacles – things that are out there and that are intractable.”
Along the way, the Afghanistan war’s American commander, General Stanley McChrystal had his astounding media moment in Rolling Stone, openly disparaging the commander in chief and his policies. Obama had to relieve him of duty and replace him with McChrystal’s mentor, General David Petraeus, or face further public perceptions of Obama’s political powerlessness.
Photo: Obama and Biden meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., right, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and interim Chief of Staff Pete Rouse, center, in the Oval Office, Nov. 29, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Through the summer, unemployment continued above 9.5% as Democratic office holders were told by unhappy voters that they didn’t want to hear about the unprecedented healthcare bill anymore – unemployment was the devil they knew.
While August brought a few rare moments of success – the end of the oil spill, continued profitability at GM that brought new hiring and repayments to the treasury for its earlier bailout, and the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, the First Lady’s vacation to Spain brought forth a gush of public criticism over the insensitivity of such a seemingly profligate trip at these straitened times.
Through autumn, unemployment continued above 9.5% as the president’s approval stayed below 50%. The Tea Party primary and convention successes in the Republican Party brought forth a string of new, harsher Republican critics that effectively kept a sitting president from campaigning beyond traditional Democratic strongholds in the urban areas of the so-called “blue states”.
By the day after the midterm election, with unemployment at 9.8% and presidential approval at only 47%, Obama would comment ruefully, “You know, this is something I think every president needs to go through…Now, I’m not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night. You know, I’m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons.”
Obama couldn’t catch a break. In a pickup basketball game with some friends and staffers, symbolically, it seemed, he was hit in the mouth by another player’s elbow and the cut required 12 stitches to close. And then came the latest instalment of WikiLeaks disclosures, this time with more than a quarter of a million state department cables, following the earlier leaks of almost half a million documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
But after all this punishment, Obama seemed to have drawn energy from defeat, reverses and assaults, demonstrating the political equivalent of a basketball player’s quick pivot switch from defence to offense. Or as New York Times columnist Gail Collins described the switch in Obama’s public persona (and luck):
“Good work, White House! Thank heavens we got rid of our former president, Barack Obama, who couldn’t even get the trade agreement he went all the way to South Korea to sign. Our current president, Barack Obama, would never let that happen, and, in fact, came up with a really excellent trade agreement with the South Koreans just the other day.”
In the so-called lame-duck session of the old congress, held after the election, but before the newly elected members come into office early in January, in a burst of presidential impact and a flourish of bipartisanship, Obama gained congressional ratification of new Start by a 71 to 26 margin. This treaty with Russia caps nuclear warheads, resumes weapons inspections, advances US credibility abroad and even gives some substance to the promise of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize a year ago. And if that was not enough, Democrats even found sufficient Republican support (and endorsements by senior military figures) to repeal the military ban allowing openly homosexual enlistees to enter military service, bringing to an end some 17 years of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule.
Moreover, working hand-in-hand with those same congressional Republican leaders, the two sides reached a compromise on tax cut extensions for the rich and those who earn less than $250,000 annually, extensions on unemployment payments, food safety rules and healthcare measures for 9/11 rescue/recovery workers. The tax cut extension, in particular, is poised to add even more to the overall federal budget, estimated at about $900 billion. While many critics argue this is less than effective to give the economy a shot in the arm, supporters say it will trigger renewed increased business investment and thus rehiring of some unemployed. Turning, again to Gail Collins for a sour dose of unmitigated reality:
“Nothing would have gotten done if Obama hadn’t swallowed that loathsome compromise on tax cuts for the wealthy. If he’d taken the high road, Congress would be in a holiday war. The long-term unemployed would be staggering into the new year without benefits. The rest of the world would look upon the United States as a country so dysfunctional that it can’t even ratify a treaty to help keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.”
Nevertheless, the results of the lame-duck congress’ response to Obama’s siren call seem so astounding it is impossible to resist quoting Lindsey Graham again when he said, “When it’s all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch”. But of course there is still the new menu from the upcoming congress with its Republican majority in the House and its control-in-all-but-name over in the Senate. There’s always another meal in politics.
And as The New York Time’s resident conservative commentator, Ross Douthat, adds, “In the end, some sort of bipartisanship will be required to pull America back from the fiscal precipice, and the productivity of this lame-duck December shows that cooperation between the two parties isn’t as impossible as it seemed just a few months ago.” But Douthat adds that real courage will be needed in future due to the tough choices on spending now ahead.
In terms of Obama’s own preparations for this new political dynamic, White House sources say he is preparing to re-energise his staff with new appointments and personalities – the most important of these, perhaps, is finalising Lawrence Summers’ replacement as director of the national economic council. Obama and his team are hoping to reshape an administration so it can deal with the realities of divided government, and simultaneously get ready for a re-election campaign less than two years away. Accordingly, the White House plans to bulk up its contingent of lawyers to deal with hostile congressional oversight hearings and investigations, to staff up a re-election headquarters in Chicago, and to sort out suitable transitions for cabinet officers who plan to leave the administration at the two-year mark so as to take up other opportunities.
As part of this process, the Obama administration is seeking ideas and insights from veterans of previous administrations and outsiders alike and even mining biographies of inspirational political leaders like Lou Cannon’s “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” while Obama and his family are at the beach in Hawaii for their Christmas-New Year vacation. Staffers say he has already read “The Clinton Tapes” by Taylor Branch, a profile of Clinton via a series of interviews to see how the Clinton team handled divided government, although the Obama White House has been abjured from even using the dreaded word, “triangulation”.
Got any ideas? Send your own memorandum to the White House today – researchers are standing by. DM
For more, read AP, AP, AP, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post. And for a black conservative Republican’s view on all this, see The Root.
Main photo: President Barack Obama meets with staff, from left: National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication; Chief of Staff for Policy Mona Sutphen; Liz Sherwood-Randall, Senior Director for European Affairs; Mike McFaul, Senior Director for Russian and Central Asian Affairs; Senior Advisor David Axelrod; and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs during the NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Nov. 20, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall