Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama is rebounding from his party’s midterm drubbing with the kind of lame-duck victory list any White House would want: a tax deal, a landmark repeal of the ban on openly gay military service, and the prospect of a major nuclear treaty with Russia.
Each 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.
In the seven weeks since the election, Obama negotiated with Republican leaders on taxes and left angry liberals on the sidelines. On the New START arms treaty, he sidelined GOP Senate leaders and negotiated with like-minded Republicans. And with the repeal of the Pentagon’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy on gays in uniform, he delighted liberals, won Republican rank-and-file support and left conservatives fuming.
Obama, whose first two years were marked by staunchly partisan votes on his signature initiatives, finds himself at a crossroads. 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.
The lame-duck congressional session, however, is not an altogether clear template for the future. Democrats for now still control the House and Senate; next year Republicans will take over the House and gain seats in the Senate. The lame duck issues that lent themselves to compromise 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.
Still, the achievements of the lame duck session are remarkable and surprising, and they help cast Obama in a new light.