Joshua Green

For Obama, a miracle — sort of

By Joshua Green
December 23, 2010

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ONE OF the big surprises since last month’s election is that President Obama has fared much better than anyone would expect.

Obama himself called the results a “shellacking,’’ and they were widely interpreted as a resounding rejection of his policies. Prospects for the lame-duck session of Congress appeared even grimmer than the contentious period just before the election. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Instead of packing up and leaving town for the holidays, members of Congress have passed a flurry of bipartisan legislation and even extended the session in order to pass more.

It isn’t quite a Christmas miracle. But as Congress goes, it’s not too far off.

The key to this burst of activity was the tax cut deal that Obama signed on Friday. Initially, his agreeing to extend for two years the Bush-era rate cuts for the rich, along with generous terms for the estate tax, aroused anger in his own party, especially among liberals eager for a showdown. This diminished once it became clear that in exchange for meeting Republican demands on taxes, Democrats would get what amounted to a second stimulus package — tax cuts for the poor and middle class, along with extended unemployment benefits and corporate credits designed to goose the economy.

But the Democrats got much more than that. Had the Republican minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, carried out his threat to shut down the Senate unless the Bush tax cuts were extended — and since he presided over 91 filibusters this Congress, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have — nothing that has happened since the tax deal was struck would have occurred. And a lot has happened.

Along with the stimulus provisions, Democrats have managed, with at least some Republican support, to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy forbidding gays and lesbians from serving openly; pass a far-reaching food-safety bill that appeared dead; ratify the New START Treaty with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons; and confirm a whole host of judicial nominees who had been languishing for months. Not everyone is happy about the break in the logjam. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called it a “capitulation’’ of “dramatic proportions’’ to a party that had just gotten trounced. “The lame duck session,’’ he complained on Fox News, “was meant to basically transition from one Congress to the next, not take every special-interest item the liberals want and pass it in two weeks.’’

It’s tempting at this time of year (especially for a newspaper columnist!) to suggest that this sudden surge of bipartisanship occurred when lawmakers’ hearts swelled, as the Grinch’s did in the end, when they heard the cries of “unemployment’’ and “over-taxation’’ ringing out from Whoville and were moved to address them. Let’s resist that temptation. A more compelling analysis — Grinch-like in the ordinary sense — is that Democrats and Republicans are concentrating on different battlefields, and far from signaling any enduring harmony and goodwill, are simply positioning themselves for the fights ahead.

Graham’s complaints notwithstanding, McConnell and other Republican leaders have set themselves up to drive a much harder bargain in the two years ahead.

Last week, McConnell succeeded in blocking the omnibus spending bill to fund the government next year, forcing a compromise that will deny Democrats money budgeted to enact the new health care and financial reform laws. That spending bill will be revisited next spring, when Republicans will be more powerful and better able to shape it to their interests. The tax deal, too, even beyond the two-year extension of the Bush cuts, will yield future benefits. That extension will expire in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign, which will allow Republicans to make the same threats about tax increases that have just proved so effective. Even the deficit-funded stimulus measures can be viewed as strengthening the Republicans’ hand next year, when Congress has to raise the debt ceiling. Grassroots pressure to oppose this will be even greater in light of the larger revenue shortfall. In this sense, McConnell has operated in much the same way that Bill Belichick does during the NFL draft, forgoing immediate gratification for a bigger payoff down the road.

Hardly the stuff of Christmas carols, to be sure. Still, season’s greetings from Washington.

Joshua Green is senior editor of The Atlantic. His column appears regularly in the Globe.