President Barack Obama, whose first two years were marked by staunchly partisan votes on his signature initiatives, finds himself at a crossroads.
In the seven weeks since the election, Obama negotiated with Republican leaders on taxes and left angry liberals on the sidelines. On a major nuclear treaty with Russia, he sidelined GOP Senate leaders and negotiated with like-minded Republicans. And with a landmark repeal of the ban on openly gay military service, he delighted liberals, won Republican rank-and-file support and left conservatives fuming.
Obama is rebounding from his party’s midterm drubbing with the kind of lame-duck victories any White House would want. And his legislative partners have not come from his usual roster of allies — they were Republicans like Senate leader Mitch McConnell on taxes and foreign policy stalwart Richard Lugar on the New START treaty, and independent Joseph Lieberman on ending the Pentagon’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy.
Each achievement represents a different approach at deal-making, but none alone offers a clear path to governing in a divided capital over the next two years.
Faced with an ascendant GOP and a restless electorate, the White House is happily holding up the president’s recent successes as a sign of new outreach.
“This won’t be a model for everything over the next two years, but it provides a strong foundation to build on,” Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said.
During his 2008 campaign, Obama offered two visions of change. One was in policy: He would overhaul the nation’s health care system and provide universal insurance. The other was tone: His was a purple nation, not a red or blue America riven by partisanship. For most of his first two years, he managed to accomplish the first while sacrificing the latter.
In a shift dictated in part by urgency and by opportunity, Obama has shown a willingness in the past few weeks to bend and pull votes from the other side to get results — at some cost within his party.
Yet, as remarkable and surprising as those results are, the lame-duck congressional session is not a clear template for the future.
Next year Republicans will take over the House and gain seats in the Senate. The issues that lent themselves to compromise in the lame duck session were easier than the hurdles the White House, Democrats and Republicans will have to clear in the months ahead. And the next two years also lead inexorably to the 2012 presidential elections, where confrontation, not cooperation, will dominate politics.
What’s more, Obama and Congress merely postponed key moments of reckoning. The tax cut agreement extended all Bush-era tax rates for two years. That leaves unsolved the question of what tax rates should be made permanent and which ones should be allowed to increase. That debate may well dominate the presidential election year.
Congress also was unable to pass a major spending bill to keep the government operating, settling for a short-term, stop-gap measure that maintains current spending into early March. That means a new and contentious debate with a GOP-controlled House over money to implement new health care and bank oversight laws that many Republicans oppose.
And the Senate failed to advance an immigration bill that would have given a path to legal status to many young illegal immigrants who join the military or attend college. The legislation will be far more difficult to pass in the new Congress.
Congress and the White House also have vowed to tackle sky-high deficits and the growing national debt, challenges that Obama himself acknowledged last week will be far more difficult than the tax deal he was signing.
“There will be moments, I’m certain, over the next couple of years in which the holiday spirit won’t be as abundant as it is today,” the president said Friday as he signed the tax legislation with McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, at his side.
To many liberals, the end-of-year session marked Obama as a pushover and Republicans, in the words of Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., as “better poker players.”
To some Republicans, Obama emerged as a self-interested pragmatist.
“When faced with the specter of committing either political hara-kiri or doing the right thing, he’ll do the right thing,” said Republican consultant John Feehery, a former senior House Republican leadership aide. “He can be politically ruthless when he has to be.”
And yet to others he showed himself to be an agile and graceful politician.
“He’s very supple and very smart,” said Fred Greenstein, the presidential historian and emeritus professor at Princeton University. “People are welcome to underestimate him. I’m sure it doesn’t bother him at all.”
To achieve the tax deal, he abandoned his demand that tax rates for the wealthy had to go up and signed off on an estate tax rate that Democrats opposed. But he managed to win billions of dollars in jobless benefits, a payroll tax cut and breaks for businesses that were far more ambitious than many thought he could obtain to stimulate the economy.
The deal avoided a tax increase for all. But while bargaining with McConnell, the lead GOP negotiator, the White House marginalized liberals, and they were livid.
On the nuclear arms treaty, the White House saw the lame-duck session as a final opportunity to avoid a protracted debate next year. That could have doomed a treaty the administration sees as essential to establishing credibility abroad. But McConnell and his second in command, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, insisted on more time and decided to oppose it.
To win support, the White House found an ally in Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. Lugar is a foreign policy expert whom Obama first sought out during his early days in Washington as a senator from Illinois, more than four years ago. As senators, the two had traveled to the former Soviet Union together and sponsored legislation on nonproliferation of conventional weapons and on fuel economy.
Systematically, the White House lobbied Republicans with a bipartisan array of foreign policy elders. They won the backing of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former President George H.W. Bush and they kept their own contacts with GOP senators private.
By Tuesday, they had won the stated support of 11 Republicans in the Senate, more than enough to win the two-thirds majority needed to ratify a treaty, expected Wednesday.
“The president would admit that he spent more time reaching out to Republicans recently than in previous times,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.
Winning the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell was less about bipartisanship than about finding the opening in the lame-duck calendar. Still, the measure passed with the type of Republican support Congress had not seen for two years.
For the White House, it was also a welcome fulfillment of a campaign promise — and proof to liberals that Obama was not throwing them under the bus.
Jim Kuhnhenn covers the White House for The Associated Press.
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