Lame duck? For Obama, it could be the golden goose

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's success this week in winning passage of the New START nuclear arms treaty is the latest of an extraordinary string of victories he's won in the seven weeks since Republicans gave his Democrats a "shellacking" in the Nov. 2 midterm congressional elections.

His biggest win was shepherding passage of an $858 billion bipartisan tax cut package tailored to help the economy rebound along with his political stature.

Almost as stunning was the historic bipartisan Senate vote to repeal the military's ban on openly gay troops.

He also triumphed by holding out for a strengthened free-trade deal with South Korea that will boost exports of U.S. autos and beef even though he suffered initial criticism for failing to get it during his November visit there.

And as the lame-duck congressional session wound down, he capped those achievements Wednesday when 13 Senate Republicans joined all 56 Democrats and two independents in support of the New START treaty. The treaty needed 67 votes; with Obama pushing hard and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden on the Senate floor, it got 71.

"There's no way you can credibly say anybody could have delivered more," said presidential historian H.W. Brands of the University of Texas at Austin, of the lame duck achievements.. "Obama to me is basically a centrist, a pragmatist."

The unusually productive lame-duck session of Congress gave him a second chance to redeem his leadership skills in the eyes of voters.

To be sure, Obama suffered some setbacks in the lame-duck session. He failed to win enactment of a major change in immigration law known as the DREAM Act, and efforts to pass a comprehensive 2011 budget fizzled badly.

And so far there's no evidence in polls that voters are ready to reward his recent performance. About 48 percent of voters disapprove of how he's doing his job and 46 percent approve, according to an average of 10 national polls this month compiled by Real Clear Politics.

Still, he's shown some surprising skills of late, enough to give hope to his partisans that perhaps he might yet rebound politically. After all, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton each suffered economic setbacks, weak polls and jarring first-term congressional elections, yet each went on to win a second term. Why not Obama?

Obama's fate probably hinges more on the economy rebounding by early to mid-2012 than on voters remembering the New START treaty's passage.

"In evaluating the lame duck, the fundamental question is who gives the president credit?" said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who lost re-election to a tea party challenger. "I don't see the kind of voter who will make a difference in 2012 paying attention to all these details. The voters who elected Obama in '08, and then turned on the Democrats in '10, are much more interested in the direction of the country."

The lame-duck session showed how a president can win. Obama used it to secure a mix of domestic and foreign policy victories that Republicans had threatened to block, and to deliver a major gay rights win for liberals that could diminish their rage over his concessions to Republicans on extending tax cuts for the rich.

Obama's post-election strategy took advantage of the impending Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and Democrats' weakened majority in the Senate to leverage compromises that might not have been possible otherwise. Democrats knew they'll only be weaker starting next month, and some Republicans on the verge of sharing power seemed to shy from being simply the party of no.

About two dozen moderate-to-conservative House Democrats lost re-election, making it easier for them to vote with the president. Likewise, a handful of Republicans who were retiring or lost primaries were liberated to join Obama without fear of punishment.

It's sure to be more difficult next year, but not necessarily impossible.

"There's almost this shadow Republican majority. It's not there yet, but it's coming," Brands said. "When you get this divided government, both parties have an incentive to get something done."

Brands said he thinks Obama expected November's results, and looked for ways to make the most out of them. One silver lining was it freed him to separate himself from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other liberals.

Lawmakers, issue advocates and political scientists say that Obama's lame-duck methods may foreshadow his approach to next year's split Congress:

_ Purposefully distancing himself from liberals on some issues, and tacking to the center on major budget proposals.

_ Campaigning for carefully chosen liberal causes that can appease his base if they happen to be issues that independent voters also are comfortable with.

_ Asking surrogates to make the case for him when their stature can reach targeted audiences better than he can. That includes asking Republicans from past administrations to drum up votes from hesitant GOP lawmakers.

William Chafe, a Duke University history professor, said Obama's decision to make Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the lead salesmen on repealing "don't ask don't tell" showed political "shrewdness."

Where Obama earlier had relied on Democratic votes alone to pass his initiatives through Congress, as on health care, on the day after November's elections he said that he'd heard the voters and understood that they expect Democrats and Republicans to work together.

Obama immediately announced that he was inviting top Republicans to the White House for a bipartisan strategy session on the expiring tax cuts and the economy.

"It's not just going to be a photo op," he said.

It wasn't. Within weeks, he had his tax deal, even though it meant cutting out liberal Democrats.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of Obama's most vocal Capitol Hill supporters, said that Obama "took a lot of grief for compromising with Republicans" on the tax cuts, but in the end it "set a tone" that led to results.

"He gets a lot of credit for setting that tone, and he did it at some risk with people in the base."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama "spent more time reaching out to Republicans recently than in previous times" and added that Republicans, too, may be heeding the voters' call for more cooperation.

"When you sort of peel away the political rhetoric and the political back-and-forth, you find that there are, on a host of issues, important things that we all can agree on," Gibbs said.

Going forward, Obama will try to "find a coalition of like-minded individuals on either side of the political spectrum that agree," Gibbs said. "I think that's what he's done over the past few weeks, and I think that's what he'll look to continue to do next year."

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Obama wins: Senate's 67-28 START vote ensures ratification

Congress repeals 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on gays in military

House approves $858 billion tax-cut bill, 277-148

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