POLITICS
11/19/2010 10:26 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Lame Duck' Becomes Bird Of Prey

WASHINGTON - This Lame Duck, it turns out, is a Bird of Prey.

The post-election Congress, which will return after Thanksgiving and remain in town until Christmas or even New Year's Eve, is threatening to devour what's left of Barack Obama's presidency before he can refashion it to deal with the final two years of his term.

Inspired by their wins in November, fiercely determined to undercut the president at every turn, Republicans are using the Lame Duck to block the president on everything from taxes and spending to gays in the military to a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

In the process, they are forcing him to make decisions that further define him - not always for the better - at a time when he is facing mounting criticism in his own party, from George Soros to James Carville on the left to Blue Dogs and deficit hawks on the right.

As exquisitely attuned as Team Obama was to the rhythms of the 2008 presidential campaign, they seemed unaware of - or at least unprepared for - the intensity of what was abut to hit them in this interregnum.

After the election "shellacking," the president left town for a long foreign trip, as presidents often do, and the sense at the White House was that they'd have plenty of time to plot his political reintroduction and unveil it in his State of the Union speech in late January.

But these November and December weeks could well force the president into some decisions - or rather a reluctant acceptance of some outcomes -that he'll have a hard time explaining far into the future.

Chief among, in the eyes of his increasingly restive Democratic supporters, is his reluctance to seek a dramatic confrontation over $700 billion worth of continued tax cuts for the rich at a time when the GOP is blocking additional unemployment benefits.

The House on Thursday voted down the benefit extension. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs criticized the move. Democratic leaders say they will try again. But there is little guarantee that they will succeed.

In the meantime, the White House has conceded that it will accept a tax deal, as long as there is no "permanent" extension of low rates for the wealthiest taxpayers.

The president also wanted his spending priorities approved: a signature rethinking of federal programs that was supposed to go into effect last month. But Republicans are refusing to go along, and Obama has yet to make a fervent case for why they should.

Nor is it clear that he'll get approval for abolition of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy on gays in the military. And the Republicans are balking at approving the "New START" arms control treaty with Russia.

Even Michelle Obama's pet legislative project - an anti-obesity bill on which she worked diligently for months - is in danger of being pecked to death in the Lame Duck.

The only important measure enacted so far is one to pay Medicare doctors at a higher rate than the bureaucratic formula calls for. But this "Doc Fix," an annual exercise that usually extends the higher payments for a year, was approved for one month.

It expires on Jan. 1, 2011.

Which means the Lame Duck will have to deal with the matter again in December, perhaps as late as after Christmas.

While all of this is going on, the president and the White House are not only not dominating the conversation - they at times seem almost incidental to it.

The president was nowhere to be seen denouncing the House's failure to extend the benefits, for example. He's even had little to say about the First Lady's bill.

On Election Night 2010, some commentators suggested that Obama could take comfort in the example of Bill Clinton, who was also was shellacked in his first mid-terms, but went on to win reelection.

But in 1994, Clinton had a tame Lame Duck: a short , focused and ultimately successful one on a new treaty to expand global trade. It had bipartisan support.

Clinton had time to regroup. Obama hasn't had a moment.