Washington has rushed to declare President Obama a political Lazarus based on an active and successful lame duck session of Congress that saw tax rates extended for two years, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and will likely on Wednesday add the ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
But Obama’s accomplishments are likely to be mere foothills compared to the heights that the president and Congress will be forced to scale in the months ahead. The impact of the lame duck on his reelection prospects in 2012 will almost certainly be small.
“It’s given him a good post-election boost. Obviously he just came through a very difficult midterm election. I think the passage of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a major victory, not just for the president but for the country,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, in an interview with The Daily Caller.
“That being said, none of that guarantees any kind of smooth sailing next year. We’re going to face some very tough decisions right out of the box,” Van Hollen said, pointing to the debate in March that will ensue when the government’s funding runs out, requiring another continuing resolution.
Van Hollen said he expects incoming House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican, to push for reducing spending to 2008 levels in the new CR. Boehner, however, has not said when he will try to make significant spending cuts, and there is a good chance he could do so even sooner than March.
Also in the spring, the national debt is likely to be nearing its current ceiling of $14.3 trillion, requiring an act of Congress to raise it. Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, who served as a co-chair of Obama’s deficit commission, has predicted a “political bloodbath” during this debt limit fight.
In fact the debate over how to solve the nation’s debt problem and runaway entitlement spending will begin in February when Obama releases his proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year that begins in October.
And it’s likely that the budget, CR and debt ceiling fights will be just the beginning of a tumultuous year that could make the lame duck’s relative bipartisan spirit a quickly forgotten relic.
Ed Gillespie, one of the Republican Party’s foremost political strategists, told TheDC that Obama’s lame duck wins are “going to be overtaken by events.”
“The shelf life of this stuff is not very long, other than the tax cuts,” said Gillespie, who like many conservatives believes that having the debate all over again in 2012 whether to extend all tax rates or let top earners face an increase is to the GOP’s advantage.
Obama and Democrats believe they will have a winning argument in casting the Republicans as fighting for the rich to receive tax breaks. The more important question is actually whether the economy improves, and whether the tax deal reached this month is perceived to have helped it do so.
“I suspect it will help him a bit, because I think the tax deal will help the economy, which will be a key, and probably a decisive, factor in 2012,” said Pete Wehner, a former White House adviser to President George W. Bush.
“I think Obama is in better shape ad the end of December than he was at the mid-point in November — but he’s still not in particularly strong shape,” Wehner said by e-mail. “And unlike Bill Clinton, who was free of HillaryCare (because it was never passed into law), Barack Obama is stuck with ObamaCare. And that, I think, will hurt him quite a lot.”
The only clear cut victories for Obama are DADT and the expected ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But the former does little else electorally other than pacify a liberal base that has often been angry at the president, and the latter will likely have a small political impact.
Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, said the DADT repeal would only help Obama with youth voters “if the GOP candidate foolishly tries to make it an issue.”
“If not, it will be kinda hard to rev young people up over an accomplishment that’s almost two years old,” Begala said. “[Obama] has to move the needle on jobs and wind down these God-awful wars. That’s what his re-election will be judged on.”
“Winning on START and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell will be an important and enduring part of President Obama’s historic legacy, but I don’t think they will be major factors in his re-election,” he said. “That will be driven, I suspect, by his two biggest gambles: doubling down (or, more accurately, tripling down) on troop levels in Afghanistan, and his $858 billion gamble on the tax compromise.”
“If the former brings peace and the latter brings prosperity, he’ll win in a landslide.”
Gillespie agreed that the payoff from DADT and the START treaty would be small in 2012.
“I think he’s addressing one of the central problems he had, which is the notion that he’s ineffective, and that the office was kind of swallowing him up,” Gillespie said. “But he’s not helping to correct too much, other from the tax deal, the notion that he’s too liberal for the country.”
Nonetheless, even Republican lawmakers who were frustrated by the way Obama and the Democrats have moved so swiftly to pass several measures in the lame duck were grudgingly respectful of the feat.
“Let me tell you, you’ve got to take your hat off to the president and Harry Reid,” Graham said. “I admire good lawyering and good politicking, and they have done a heck of a job.”