Hailing a “season of progress,” in which a lame-duck Congress passed a nuclear arms treaty, extended Bush-era tax cuts, and allowed gays to serve openly in the military, President Obama used his year-end press conference to say that he wanted to continue to “heed the message of the American people” to secure bipartisan agreements.
But Obama’s session with reporters tacitly underscored the difficulties ahead. After all, these accomplishments took place under a Democratic Congress, and that’s not what will greet him when he returns from his vacation in Hawaii. The Republican-controlled House and a strengthened Republican hand in the Senate will greet him. Obama will have an even harder time getting what he wants, especially when it comes to spending priorities at a time when both parties are feeling pressure to reduce the swelling federal budget deficit.
Still, Obama waxed optimistic: “We don’t have to agree on 100 percent to get things done that enhance the lives of families all across America,” Obama said.
Speaking from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, the appearance marked the end of an extraordinary postelection period when Obama was able to pass many of his legislative priorities, most notably the nuclear arms treaty and an end to the 17-year-old "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy banning openly gay men and women from serving in the military. During that period, conventional wisdom in Washington shifted dramatically as Obama, often dismissed as hopelessly and perhaps lethally wounded by the midterm elections, seemed increasingly confident and able to command the national stage. Even the questions at the press conference were far more respectful and friendly in tone than those that greeted him when he addressed reporters following his party’s drubbing in November.
Still, Obama not only faces a more conservative Congress come January, but he continues to face an economy that’s sluggish at best and years away from the unemployment rates that preceded the financial crisis in 2008. While the lame-duck Congress extended some policies that Republicans and Democrats favored—Bush-era tax cuts for conservatives and unemployment benefits for liberals—no new ideas to help the economy emerged from the session, although the administration did secure a free trade agreement with South Korea during this period, signaling a possible area of agreement with the new Congress when it will need to be ratified.
Both parties will be judged on the economy’s performance, but there’s no indication that either Democrats or Republicans have new initiatives to offer come January. A second stimulus package is out of the question as is the Republican goal of further tax cuts.
In one small but telling moment, Obama noted that he called Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to thank him for his support for the New START treaty. Obama recalled that his first foreign trip as a senator took place with Lugar.
In a sense, Obama seemed to be trying to reclaim his presidency by going back to his short, but charmed, Senate career, where he was known as something of a bridge-builder—a theme he carried into his historic 2008 presidential bid.
Whether he can find that kind of common ground going forward is not clear. Obama was able to buck his party’s left wing on the question of extending the Bush-era tax cuts for upper-income earners, but it’s not clear if liberals will continue to heed the president’s wishes—especially if, as is widely speculated, he takes on cherished programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
In other news at the press conference, Obama offered some small indication that he’s rethinking his opposition to gay marriage. The president supports civil unions for gays but has not endorsed legal marriage.
He called the failure to pass the Dream Act, a measure that would have offered a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military, the "biggest disappointment" of the lame-duck session. He vowed to fight for it again, but the political terrain for its passage will be far more difficult come January.
Regarding the detention facility at the American base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama said he was still determined to close the facility but did not announce a date certain for its closure. He remarked as he has on many occasions about the difficulties of balancing civil liberties while prosecuting terrorists who are not American citizens and “who have shown a capacity and willingness to engage in brutal attacks.”
Rebecca Kaplan, Ben Terris, and Sara Sorcher contributed contributed to this article.