For a guy who was supposed to be on the ropes after last month’s shellacking at the polls, President Obama has had a pretty good two weeks.
First, the president wrangled an extension of unemployment insurance and a 2 percent rollback on payroll taxes for workers from Republicans in exchange for an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. He managed a trade deal with South Korea, and capped it over the weekend with the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. The White House says they’re still not done—voicing confidence on Monday that they can get the New START treaty with Russia done before Congress adjourns later this week.
“Judging this lame-duck session by other lame-duck sessions, I approached it thinking it would be a period of very limited accomplishment,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “I have to confess, I was very surprised. I imagined that the [political] process was on hold, but somehow the benign spirit of Christmas settled on the combatants on Capitol Hill.”
This isn’t the first lame-duck session to see significant action. During the lame duck in 1954, the Senate voted to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his unsubstantiated charges that the federal government was riddled with communist sympathizers and Soviet spies. And during the lame duck in 1998, the House voted to impeach President Clinton on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and malfeasance in office stemming from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Paula Jones lawsuit.
But in terms of making policy, Baker suggested that the last 2½ weeks could go down as the most substantive lame duck in recent memory. It’s a rare moment—whether you like the various pieces of legislation or not—when it’s hard to deny that the politicians in Washington are working.
Despite the White House’s legislative accomplishments—the ability to deftly maneuver around the president's liberal base to hammer out a tax-cut compromise and outmaneuver Republicans to win repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell—the Obama’s popularity numbers remain remarkably low.
In a Washington Post-ABC poll released last week, respondents were asked whether they trusted Obama or the Republicans in Congress to do a better job with the main problems facing the country. Only 43 percent said they trusted the president more. The good news for the White House: The public still holds Republicans in even lower regard, with just 38 percent of respondents saying they trust GOP lawmakers to get the job done.
Obama advisers, though, seem to understand that they’re still in the voters’ doghouse.
Standing at the podium on November 30, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs ticked off a list of legislation that Obama would push Congress to tackle before he headed to Hawaii for a two-week vacation—brokering an agreement on tax cuts, winning an extension of unemployment insurance, passing the Dream Act, repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military, and ratifying New START.
One reporter cheekily responded “good luck” after Gibbs offered the White House’s ambitious legislative To Do list. When the press secretary was reminded of the exchange on Monday, he resisted the opportunity to gloat and instead waxed on the necessity of bipartisan cooperation.
“I think there is a lesson of the importance that these issues have with not just those on Capitol Hill, but with the American people, and that two parties can and should work together to get things like that done—whether it’s in December of the end of a two-year Congress or in January, the first month of a two-year Congress,” Gibbs offered.
The president has had a good run. But when Congress comes back in January, with Republicans in control of the House and with Democrats holding a slimmer lead in the Senate, the White House might need that luck after all.