President Barack Obama gave an afternoon press conference today, and he sounded a lot more confident than he has sounded for quite a while. The reason for this is that the 111th Congress is ending with a bang and not the expected whimper. After the Democrats' "shellacking" (to use Obama's preferred term) in the midterm elections, few inside-the-Beltway prognosticators figured much of anything would get done in the lame-duck session of Congress before the newly-elected Congress is seated in January. As it turned out, this conventional wisdom was wrong. The lame-duck Congress produced more weighty legislation than most lame ducks manage -- a fitting end to two years with more significant legislative victories than any Congress since Lyndon B. Johnson (or even Franklin D. Roosevelt, depending on how you score these things). Which is why President Obama had good reason to sound as confident as he did today.
Of course, what the lame-duck Congress actually achieved has not pleased everyone. Detractors from the left and the right denounced this action or that which Congress achieved in these few short weeks. But most Americans are actually pretty satisfied with the results, if the polls are to be believed.
From today's "Plum Line" blog on WashingtonPost.com, Greg Sargent sums it up:
It's obvious enough that Obama's rebound was remarkable, in that he has defied expectations of gridlock to rack up a fusillade of major accomplishments that have placed him in a stronger position than many expected. But there's more: It turns out he will also emerge from the session with far more kudos from the public than Republicans have earned.
So finds a new CNN poll [PDF], which seems to confirm that Obama "won" the session hands down. It finds that voters approve of his handling of the session, 56-41. By contrast, only 42 percent of Americans approve of the GOP's handling of it, versus 53 percent who disapprove.
The poll has more. It finds that Americans think that Obama has done enough to compromise with Republicans, 59-37. By contrast, a big majority, 68 percent, thinks Republicans have not done enough to compromise with Obama, while only 28 percent think they've done enough.
In other words, Obama may be getting much of the credit for the compromising that made the lame-duck session a success. Since the public strongly supported the tax-cut compromise, it seems likely these bad numbers from Republicans flow from their opposition to the "New START" treaty and to repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," both of which have strong public support.
Sargent then goes on to cite another interesting article from his own site, which puts forth a well-reasoned theory: Obama's political victory on the "New START" arms reduction treaty with Russia would have been a minor one, if the Republicans hadn't made such a big deal of trying to obstruct it. The article ends:
If New START is ratified, the only reason it'll be considered an Obama victory is because Republicans decided to oppose it without any real reason for doing so. If the Senate had simply ratified the treaty without any fuss, Obama might have gotten a few days of positive press, but it wouldn't have been treated as a major political success. Because Senate Republicans turned ratification into a huge partisan brawl, a Democratic president renewing an agreement with Russia designed by Republican presidents now looks like a massive victory for the administration.
Republicans have only themselves to blame here. If they had been more focused on the substance of New START, and less worried about humiliating the president or instinctively rejecting anything he proposes, the White House wouldn't have anything to brag about.
Obama had two choices after the midterm election. He could either have had a battle royale with Republicans over tax cuts for the wealthy -- and risk losing this battle, at least in the eyes of the public, if nothing was achieved and everybody's taxes went up in January -- or Obama could have cut a deal quickly, in return for allowing the Senate time to move on many other important issues. He chose to deal, and to deal early. He was excoriated for doing so, by many. But what now needs to be figured into the weighing of whether Obama's tax deal with Senate Republicans was "a good thing" or "a bad thing" is all the other things which would not have happened if the deal had not been cut -- things such as repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," passing food safety legislation, ratifying New START, getting medical care for 9/11 responders, and making school lunches healthier. Because none of those things would ever have even made it to a vote on the Senate floor without the prerequisite of the tax deal.
Of course, the lame-duck session didn't get everything done on the Democratic agenda. The DREAM Act, in particular, was a sad loss for Democrats, and for the country. As was the utter failure to pass any sort of 2011 budget -- meaning the government will continue on "autopilot" for the next few months, until the incoming Republicans decide what they're going to do with this year's federal budget. This is not an ideal outcome for Democrats in Congress, obviously, with Republicans set to take over the House. But you know what? It's their own damn fault. Democrats, by law, are supposed to pass a federal budget by October first, because that is when the government's "fiscal year" begins. They are supposed to pass a dozen or so bills that fund each branch of the government. Democrats decided not to do so because of the upcoming election. They punted. They figured (somehow) that it'd be easier to pass a budget after the midterms than before. Which is why the lame duck was even talking about "omnibus" bills in the first place. The effort failed, and instead a "continuing resolution" (or the aforementioned "autopilot") is the best they're going to get. Due to congressional Democrats' own actions and own refusal to do their jobs on time.
But that's all water under the bridge now. Pundits are now beginning to say Obama is on a comeback, and his press conference certainly did have the air of a victory lap about it. Which is a stunning turnaround from less than two months ago, when the president sheepishly began using the word "shellacking" for the midterm results.
When you boil it all down, Obama and the Democrats are in a pretty good place right now with the public. Consider some of the other findings of the CNN poll:
On the question "Do you think the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is more responsible for the lack of cooperation between the two parties in Washington?" the results were: Democratic Party 28 percent, Republican Party 46 percent (23 percent said "both"). The Democratic Party was seen as favorable by 47 percent, and unfavorable as 47 percent -- but the Republican Party's numbers were only 42 percent favorable and 50 percent unfavorable.
On the question of Obama's handling of the lame-duck session, he got majorities of almost every demographic breakdown group there is. Obama was approved by every single subcategory in the following demographic groups: gender, race, age group, income, education level, and region of the country. The only groups who didn't support Obama were rural Americans (urban and suburban strongly supported him), 48 percent of whom approved and 49 percent of whom disapproved; and the expected party-line and ideological breakdown (Republicans 21 percent approve to 75 percent disapprove; conservatives 31/65, and Tea Party supporters 29/67). By comparison, Republicans' handling of the lame duck was of by almost exactly the same demographic groups who supported the president (except for people living in the South, who barely approved of Obama at 50/47, but also approved of Republicans by 49/46).
Of particular note were self-identified "Independents" (as opposed to stating party affiliation) and "moderates" (as opposed to conservative or liberal). These are the groups where national elections are won and lost, and Obama has had trouble with them in the past. Both groups strongly supported Obama's handling of the lame duck over the Republicans. Independents went for Obama 53/43, and against Republicans 42/54. Moderates went for Obama in an even bigger way -- 68/29 -- while slightly less strongly against Republicans at 37/60.
Whether any of this will show up in Obama's overall job approval ratings in the polls remains to be seen (the CNN poll was taken before the New START vote was announced, obviously). Also unknown is what direction the notoriously fickle American public's opinion will head once Obama starts dealing with a Republican House and a shrunken Democratic Senate majority next year. But it's undeniable that Obama's had a pretty good week this week -- which is why he had every reason to appear so confident in his presser this afternoon. Although parts of it enrage both left and right, Obama's tax deal is strongly supported by the public at large. New START is supported by the public three-to-one. Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is supported by the public almost four-to-one. Republicans took a further hit this week by opposing the 9/11 first responders' health bill -- which resulted in even Fox News disapproving of the Republican Party's obstructionism (a rare occurrence indeed).
Republicans had better heed the message of the lame duck, as they contemplate their first steps next year -- because people like it when stuff gets done in Washington, for the most part. Compromise is not an ugly word to most Americans.
Barack Obama took his victory lap today. He didn't hesitate to laud Democratic achievements, to articulate the overall Democratic narrative, and to admit that there are still some big things left to do. But the real victory here was performed by the 111th Congress. This Congress ended much as it began -- by passing a flurry of long-awaited Democratic agenda items, together with one large bill that many argued had too much Republican influence. Democrats decried the original stimulus package as having too many tax cut giveaways to the Republicans, and they did the same thing on the Obama/GOP tax cut bill they just passed. But they managed to pass both of them -- as well as all the other Democratic agenda items in tandem. Of course, between these two periods of frenetic activity on Capitol Hill, there was an excruciating period of extended debate on two or three enormous issues (healthcare reform, Wall Street reform, possibly a few others). But Democrats achieved all of these as well, flawed though these legislative victories may have been.
It didn't have to be this way, of course. Every single one of the bills the Democratic 111th Congress passed could have been better. But every single one of them could have been a lot worse, too -- or they could never have been passed at all. In fact, the 111th Congress only had a few really weighty defeats, on things like passing an energy policy, achieving comprehensive immigration reform, and a whole raft of labor issues.
Politics, the old saw goes, is the art of the possible. Measured by what was possible versus what was achieved, the 111th Congress was overwhelmingly successful and productive. The lame duck was no different. The last few weeks of Congress has had some big defeats for Democrats, but also some rather large victories. On balance, the lame duck was outstandingly productive and successful as well. No matter what your opinion of the current Congress at this point, it is almost certain that you'll look back on it more favorably as the 112th Congress takes control.
This was a bang-up week for Democrats, for Obama, and for the end of the 111th Congress. Don't believe me? Here is Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on what just happened: "When it's all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch." But rather than going out with a bang, the lame duck could just have easily wound up with a last whimper -- and I, for one, am glad it didn't turn out that way.
Follow Chris Weigant on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisWeigant