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Can Obama’s political rebound last?

By JIM KUHNHENN
December 23, 2010

President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, after signing the $858 billion tax deal into law in a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, Friday, Dec. 17, 2010 in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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11 Responses to Can Obama’s political rebound last?

  1. bmclellan

    December 23, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Look through this last minute veil of overdue window dressing Mr President and you will see the jobless, homeless, and the hopelessness of your paltry efforts.
    You have done nothing for the common man.

    America needs to go back to work. Not making war, but rebuilding from within.
    Stop the wars, sanction foreign importers, prosecute the architects of this fiscal catastrophe, and stop with this nice guy shtick.

    We need a prick running this country so stop with the smiling visage of a Cheshire Cat and all the bipartisan bull to these people who have openly shown their disdain for you. They will cut out your heart just as quickly as they will finish butchering this nation if you refuse to challenge.

    My God man, grow a pair or step aside.

  2. colorblindwhitey

    December 23, 2010 at 11:34 am

    “Look through this last minute veil of overdue window dressing Mr President and you will see the jobless, homeless, and the hopelessness of your paltry efforts.You have done nothing for the common man.”

    bmclellan – You could have stopped there. Instead, you went on to push blame on all but your beloved.

    Americans need to get off the couch. (and welfare) Sanction foreign importers (redundant)? How about cracking unions and making production in the U.S. a feasible thing, once again? How about actually competing, rather than making excuses?

    As a country we need to grow a pair or step aside, and your guy doesn’t know how to empower, only how to enslave.

    I did like your post, though. Well thought out and intelligent. Please ask your guy for a job. Maybe you can help him.

  3. Fivebyfives

    December 23, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    What the “news” organizations should be monitoring very closely is whether or not America will rebound, not Barack Obama. Like many politicians, he will do much better than those he has sworn to represent.

    This “shellacking” Obama spoke of oddly does not reflect upon him. It’s just one of those things, like a forest fire. Well, somebody started the damned thing somewhere. It was not the “loss of the Left” as the media has decreed. It was the loss of those, left, right, and middle who have the common sense to know they were betrayed. Knowing that the Republicans were going to do slightly worse than the Democrats (and that’s a LOT) many stayed home on election day. It’s not much more complicated than that.

    As someone wrote months ago, if the Democrats got creamed in November the White House was adamant that NO blame be put on Obama. And as far as all these “accomplishments,” other than the START treaty (which should not have been a partisan issue in the first place), I see these accomplishments as follows:

    1. A watered-down “healthcare reform” which uses the power of government to force citizens to purchase from private corporations while doing nothing to control costs.

    2. A watered-down version of finance reform which once again allows the president to sign something in front of cameras that does jack diddly in reality. It is only a matter of time before the casino economy crashes again and this administration will be there with cash in hand.

    3. A ridiculously predetermined “deficit reduction” commission which tackles SS even though SS is by law not part of any deficit. The agenda is to transform America completely into a 1950’s Cuba. Wait until President Obama announces this “shared sacrifice” routine next year.

    The START treaty in isolation should be, as I said, non-partisan. However, if one considers Obama’s fetish for this namby-pamby “nuclear free” world with bluebirds and butterflies flitting in our hair as we sing kumbaya, then it’s no victory for peace, but for an ideological theory.

    Obama’s “rebound” is simply this: full strength whisky for his enemies and near beer for his constituents. It’s no longer “Yes We Can” but “Oh Yes He Will!”

    • Carl Nemo

      December 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm

      Superbly expressed my friend in thought!

      Merry Christmas 2010 to you and yours. : )

      Carl Nemo **==

      • Fivebyfives

        December 23, 2010 at 1:24 pm

        Thank you, sir, and many happy returns to you and yours. Digressing to a small degree, I got to thinking about the comments on Haley Barbour and the references you provided on Harry Truman. That subject is covered there, but of all that I’ve read of Truman, he had the best sense of history of any 20th century president. Some of his decisions, as someone noted, were in opposition to the world he grew up in, particularly desegragating the military and recognizing the state of Israel.

        Truman did two things have I haven’t seen in the last 40 years: he looked further than his own nest to what was best for the United States. And he looked ahead into the future to judge whether a decision would stand the test of time.

        Such attributes can surely be found in SOMEBODY! :) Peace.

        • Carl Nemo

          December 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm

          As I’ve said in my replies to other posters on this issue, Harry Truman is my all time favorite President regardless of any KKK membership in his youth. He gets a free pass on my behalf.

          He was an artillery officer in WWI. The account of his involvement in combat is quite impressive to say the least. He also loathed war profiteers, his sentiments being that they should receive the supreme sanction for doing such; ie., the death penalty. Like wow is all I can say. His name is befitting too; ie., a ‘true man” of principals…no?

          Our government has been relentlessly compromised by the monied interests since Truman’s era. Ike warned us of the dangers of the MIC, but our citizenry failed to heed such advice. Post Kennedy’s assassination it seems all we’ve had is a bunch of corporate friendly knaves ascent to the White House. Congress is rife with compromised crimpols on the make and the take while government contractors are ripping us off bigtime with seeming no curtailment in sight. They have ‘plans’ for “We the People” and it ain’t good for sure.

          I urge readers to take the time to read his Wiki bio. Presidents post Ike with the exclusion of JFK wouldn’t make a pimple on ol’ “giv’em hell Harry’s” butt.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_S._Truman

          Carl Nemo **==

          • logtroll

            December 24, 2010 at 9:46 am

            “… relentlessly compromised by the monied interests…” just since Truman’s era?

            Cap’n, you insult all the rest of human history!

            • Carl Nemo

              December 24, 2010 at 10:17 am

              Thanks logtroll for the heads up concerning macroeconomics and bribery through the ages.

              With the end of WWII, the U.S. sat in the catbird seat as a financial and industrial powerhouse. We did well as a nation from the 50’s through the 70’s, then came the era of the Nixon’s, Ford’s, Carter, our nation now riding on the downside of our former success. Then with Reagan/H.W. Bush came the era of economic myths; ie., “trickle down” economics, spending 5 trillion to defeat an ‘Evil Empire’ that was already failing as we are now through its own mismangement and resistance to change. Also during the Reagan/Bush era we went from being the world’s greatest lending nation to that of the greatest debtor as we are now.

              When Ronald Reagan took office our national public debt was 800 billion dollars. Now with 20 of the past 30 years having been controlled by “rethug”, MIC friendly regimes we have over 13 times as much debt with nothing to show for it other than a national ‘toy box’ full of uber expensive ‘killtoys’ courtesy of said MIC.

              We’ve been scammed. Now even state governments are bust, the mighty bond market is soon to have its bubble burst as yields skyrocket and those holding earlier issues take it in the shorts. With the bond bubble about to burst, we best man the lifeboats because it’s going to a bloody rout as the USS America, stern now rising above the water is soon to take a Nantucket sleigh ride to the bottom; I.E., state and national government insolvency.

              Now if you want to go back to skulduggery instigated by “monied interests” since the dawn of civilization that’s a story for another day and I’d probably go through several dozen keyboards doing so.

              Merry Christmas 2010 to you and yours…! : )

              Carl Nemo **==

      • b mcclellan

        December 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm

        I roundly echo your sentiments Carl.
        Thanks be for logic Fbf’s.

        • Carl Nemo

          December 23, 2010 at 8:24 pm

          Bryan I meant to compliment you on the first post to this article. Spot-on and succinct concerning this president’s seeming lack of spine. It’s obvious that he’s taking his marching orders from the “old guard” that runs the show in D.C.

          He came to office via his articulate bluster, but faded quickly into a ‘yas suh, no suh’, hat in hand “Uncle Tom” relative the masters that now seemingly control plantation planet.

          Carl Nemo **==

  4. Daisy Gentry

    December 24, 2010 at 6:57 am

    As I’ve said in my replies to other posters on this issue, Harry Truman is my all time favorite President regardless of any KKK membership in his youth. He gets a free pass on my behalf. He was an artillery officer in WWI. The account of his involvement in combat is quite impressive to say the least. He also loathed war profiteers, his sentiments being that they should receive the supreme sanction for doing such; ie., the death penalty. Like wow is all I can say. His name is befitting too; ie., a ‘true man” of principals…no? Our government has been relentlessly compromised by the monied interests since Truman’s era. Ike warned us of the dangers of the MIC, but our citizenry failed to heed such advice. Post Kennedy’s assassination it seems all we’ve had is a bunch of corporate friendly knaves ascent to the White House. Congress is rife with compromised crimpols on the make and the take while government contractors are ripping us off bigtime with seeming no curtailment in sight. They have ‘plans’ for “We the People” and it ain’t good for sure. I urge readers to take the time to read his Wiki bio. Presidents post Ike with the exclusion of JFK wouldn’t make a pimple on ol’ “giv’em hell Harry’s” butt. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_S._Truman Carl Nemo **==