WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is ending the first half of his term the same way he began it – with a storm of activity of impressive, even historic, dimensions. But he may look back on these two often frustrating years as the easy ones.
In just the past week, Obama signed into law the deal he forged with Republicans – an $858-billion package of tax cuts and unemployment benefits – and saw Congress redeem one of his campaign pledges, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces. Before this week is out, the Senate could deliver another major victory – ratification of a new arms reduction treaty with Russia.
For all the achievement, it isn’t enough.
Obama has two years left to convince Americans that his approach of compromise and consensus-building is assertive enough to revive the economy and the flagging fortunes of the Democrats.
Before him will soon be a far more conservative Congress and a continuing slow-motion economic recovery that is likely to hang over his head for the next two years.
Still, the year-end victories have gone a long way toward reshaping the image of a president who seemed isolated and out of touch only a month ago, after an enormous midterm election defeat.
Obama now looks like a dealmaker who can reach across party lines to get things done and, perhaps, make progress that Americans found lacking when they went to the polls.
The soon-to-depart Democratic Congress, under prodding from Obama, will likely go down as among the most productive since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, almost half a century ago.
Obama is “a progressive leader who, in fact, understands that politics is all about the art of the possible,” Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday on NBC. Both parties, Biden said, had “heard the message” of the election: that voters “want us to reasonably compromise to move the business of the nation forward.”
By working closely with Republican leaders over the past few weeks, Obama appears engaged and involved in a way he didn’t before. Along the way, he’s helped himself with portions of his base and given independent swing voters a reason to take a fresh look.
White House officials were “elated and emotional” after Congress agreed to lift the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, said a senior aide. But otherwise, the internal response to the wins of the past few days has been cautious.
There haven’t been champagne toasts like the one that followed the passage of the health-care overhaul earlier this year. There wasn’t a victorious press release the night the tax cut passed, and the president’s bill-signing ceremony was a businesslike affair, concluding quickly so the attendees could get back to work.
White House officials count the weekend events as important accomplishments. But they also believe this is no time for them to run anything that looks like a partisan victory lap.
Obama’s aides realize that recent victories could turn out to be fleeting.
Many parts of the country have yet to pull out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Unless the recovery gathers steam, the public’s mood will remain dark and Obama’s re-election will stay in doubt.
“The economy isn’t only the No. 1 issue, it’s issue one through 10,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “It dwarfs everything else. We have made a ton of progress, but there is much more work to do. The tax cut package signed into law this week is an important step in that direction.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, an incoming, more conservative Congress is itching to keep Obama from winning a second term.
Republicans have already blocked a plan that would have funded the government into next fall.
Between now and March, a major budget battle will play out, with Republicans determined to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending and Obama determined to resist. A silver lining for the president in a divided Congress is that the new Republican House can be counted on to stop any more of the far-reaching legislation that has been less than popular with voters.
Already, there is renewed emphasis, at least rhetorically, on the need for bipartisanship.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on CNN that “we demonstrated on the tax package there is some business we can do. And if the president’s willing to come and adopt positions that frankly I and my members hold anyway, why would we say no?”
Communicating with the country – once thought to be Obama’s great strength – will be key to his ability to navigate this new reality.
Too often, during the first half of his term, the president allowed Republicans to frame the debate. Even loyal Democratic voters came to adopt the derogatory “Obamacare” label that conservatives successfully stuck to his health care legislation.
Now, freed from the need to let Democrats in Congress take the lead, Obama is “in a much better position to stop deferring and start pushing,” and that could allow him to communicate more aggressively and effectively, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
Opinion surveys show that voters across the political spectrum give the tax deal high marks, which will let Obama do something else he was unable to do before: associate himself with a highly popular initiative.
The lame-duck Congress, for all its remarkable activity, was hardly an unalloyed success for the president. Repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” reassured dispirited Obama backers, including younger voters and gays of all ages, that change was, in fact, possible in Washington. That victory could placate at least a portion of Obama’s liberal base, still fuming over his willingness to grant tax breaks to billionaires.
However, the hopes of millions of Latino voters were set back again when the Senate killed a measure over the weekend that would have given U.S. citizenship to many young people who are in this country illegally.
Candidate Obama had pledged to fix the nation’s broken immigration system, but he’s probably further from delivering on that promise than he was at the start of his term. Instead, he’ll enter the third year of his presidency without delivering for the nation’s fastest growing minority – whose votes are likely to be crucial in 2012.
At midterm, Obama still faces many of the doubts that emerged since he took office, including whether he has what it takes to get things done in Washington and make voters believe he understands their problems and is making progress on fixing them.
Obama and his aides contend that’s what he’s been doing. But the president acknowledged after the election that he had lost track of how he connected with Americans during the 2008 campaign and that the swirl of activity in the capital had left voters feeling “as if government was getting much more intrusive into people’s lives than they were accustomed to.”
But if the tax deal succeeds in boosting the nation’s tepid economic growth rate next year, as some forecasters predict, the public’s pessimistic mood could brighten and lift Obama’s re-election prospects along with it, said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.
“That is the most important political dynamic going into 2012,” he said, “that people think the economy is turning around.”