The ink was barely dry on the Obama-McConnell tax deal and already Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer had proclaimed the president “the new comeback kid.” Many in the media quickly echoed this new meme. “Political Rebound? Obama sets up as new Comeback Kid” seconded USA Today. “Some now see Obama as the ‘comeback kid’” wrote the Christian Science Monitor. You get the gist.
Six weeks ago, in the wake of the Democrats’ midterm shellacking, many commentators put the Obama presidency on life support; he was weak, spineless, out of touch. Now they’re promoting the exact opposite narrative—Obama is strong, ruthless, willing to put the good of the country ahead of his whiny liberal base.
Time for a reality check: Obama’s presidency didn’t end after the midterm election and it hasn’t been revived during the lame duck session of Congress. Polls currently show a mixed bag of news for Obama. After dropping precipitously in 2009, his numbers have held steady for much of 2010. According to the latest Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans approve of the job he’s doing as president, while 45 percent disapprove. He’s facing a divided country and a weak field of prospective 2012 GOP challengers, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney, who’ll spend the next year trying to convince Tea Party activists how “Romneycare” is different from “Obamacare.” Good luck with that, Mitt.
Yet other numerical indicators don’t paint a rosy picture for the president. No president since FDR has run for re-election or been re-elected when the unemployment rate was over 8 percent. Nearly six in ten Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to the latest Marist poll. Obama’s approval ratings among liberal Democrats—his strongest and most reliable constituency—fell below 80 percent for the first time last week, after the tax deal was announced. He’s losing his base but failing to bring independents back into the fold. (I made these points last week on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell. Posting clip below.)
Both substantively and politically, the tax deal was hardly a courageous move by Obama. His negotiation strategy came straight from the Rahm Emanuel school of politics—take the path of least resistance (extending all the Bush tax cuts), get what you can in return (unemployment benefits, the continuation of some progressive tax cuts), declare victory and move on. Or, in the case of this deal, kick the can down the road another two years and hopefully make the tough choices then.
Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a more clear cut victory for the president, a policy change that would have been unthinkable under George W. Bush, who spent much of his time in office trying to prevent equality for gay and lesbian Americans. Passage of the START treaty will be trumpeted as another major victory, even if most Americans don’t know what that is or care. But the tax cut deal, not the repeal of DADT or passage of START, will likely be the precursor of things to come in the new Congress. A hostile GOP House will want to negotiate on their terms and will be determined to make Obama’s life a living hell.
We don’t know how the president or Congressional Democrats will react to this new reality. The Obama administration accomplished a lot in the past two years but it also disappointed and alienated a good chunk of core supporters. Did Democrats make the most of their legislative supermajority, in terms of the breadth and scope of legislation passed, or did they unnecessarily compromise on too many top priorities? Obama supporters are debating this very question today and historians will continue to for years to come.
In the past two years Obama has been uneven on offense—determined to do big things but often ambivalent about how hard to push and the best path to get there—and untested on defense (that elbow he took on the basketball court was a bad sign). Can he outmaneuver his opponents or will he fall victim to the ideological extremity of the right, agreeing, for example, to cut Social Security benefits and shred a core platform of the Democratic Party?
Let’s hold off, please, from anointing Obama the comeback kid until we know what the full extent of that “comeback” actually entails.
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics