Let’s just say it hasn’t been a great autumn for President Obama. His party’s repudiation at the polls was historic. Not since 1938 has one party lost so many House seats in a midterm. Overseas, the North Koreans have attacked the South while China has done little to help put pressure on Pyongyang. Now, as Obama develops a deal with Republicans on extending Bush-era tax cuts, the left wing of the president’s party is threatening revolt.
But contrary to conventional wisdom, there’s good reason to think that the president’s fortunes may be about to turn around, at least in the short run. The Barack Obama who seemed so invincible in 2008 and so defeated in 2010 may be heading into 2011 with at least a small head of steam.
First, the president seems poised to win a couple of big victories during the lame-duck session of Congress. The START nuclear arms treaty, once considered to be easily on its way to passage, seemed headed towards defeat a earlier this month when the Republicans’ point man on ratification, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, declared that he thought the treaty should be delayed until next year so Congress could consider issues such as modernizing the nation’s nuclear forces.
But since then, the administration has done well at making the case for an early vote that would come before the Democratic margin in the Senate shrinks next year. It hasn’t hurt the White House that the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana, favors the treaty, and several White House events highlighting the accord’s bipartisan support -- former GOP Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell back it -- have helped make the case for a quick vote.
The treaty seems more likely to pass than not, and what would have once been a rather small win will seem much bigger than it might have had the treaty not faced a death scare.
Similarly, the repeal of the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy once seemed a foregone conclusion, but was cast in some doubt after the election. Last week’s Pentagon report helped bolster the case for repeal, and it was touted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The opposition to repeal, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., may yet prevail, but it seems less likely than it did a week ago.
This would be a serious achievement for the president who would be giving the left of his party something it’s sought for 17 years, and it would rank among the biggest changes in military social policy since the introduction of women into nontraditional roles or the integration of African Americans into the Armed Forces in 1948.
Even the tax deal, which is causing consternation on the president’s left, may turn out to be of some benefit for him. Yes, Obama will have to compromise on his longstanding policy of opposing continued tax breaks for wealthier earners. But a deal with the Republicans, even one that means he does most of the giving, will allow him to claim that he didn’t permit an income tax hike on his watch. It will allow him to appear bipartisan, and by having a fight with his party’s left, he may appear more centrist.
To be sure, Obama might still lose on START and "don't ask, don't tell," in which case the autumn of his discontent will head into winter. And if the tax deal launches a real insurgency on the left -- such as a primary challenger in 2012 -- then it won’t be seen as a victory. But the remaining days of the lame-duck session, far from being completely grim, offer some bright spots for a president who’s been battered of late.
It’s telling that when Obama, who received so much bad press when he failed to secure a free trade agreement with South Korea during his Asian visit last month, got that same agreement last week, his success was less widely trumpeted than the preliminary failure. It’s an object lesson in how presidents can quietly put themselves on the path to victory.
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