The Obama Watch

Off the Ropes

Behind the Obama comeback in lame-duck season.

By 12.23.10

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A lot will be made of Barack Obama's remarkable political recovery since his electoral "shellacking" of 6 weeks ago.

A politician who appeared to be headed for two possible years of lame-duckness was saved by the most active lame duck session of Congress in generations.

• They passed the tax "deal," which included a few of Obama's wish-list of non-stimulative "stimulus."

• They passed a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell ("DADT"), probably going a long way to soothe the far left fringe who were angry about the tax deal.

• They passed the START treaty.

• They passed the 9/11 "First Responders" health care bill

Each of these measures except for DADT repeal was done after substantial modification to the Democrats' preferred legislation to meet Republican demands.

The short-term impact of this rapid-fire success for Obama was for him to reassert his primacy within the Democratic Party, a position which he'd de facto delegated to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid by his absence during important policy debates, not least the socialized medicine bill commonly, and somewhat ironically given his near invisibility during the discussion, called Obamacare.

Obama is like a boxer who was beaten against the ropes, got a gash over his eye, but was helped by a good trainer between rounds and came out punching with surprising effectiveness against opponents who had thought that they had already won the bout.

That's the good news for Obama. He would be wise not to get overconfident.

The START Treaty, once certain aspects of its applicability to possible future missile defense systems was cleared up, was not extremely objectionable. And it was unlikely to have failed even in the next Senate session once Republicans had had time to pretend to understand or care about it, which only a handful of Senators of either party do.

The 9/11 health care bill hubbub was primarily a debate about cost. The GOP got certain pork stripped from the bill, got the cost cut by more than 50%, and it passed with bipartisan support...as it would have in the next session as well.

Even DADT repeal, having gotten 65 votes in the Senate and passing the House with a 75-vote margin, is reasonably likely to have gone through in 2011 if it didn't go through now.

And finally, hindsight on the tax "deal" is a colossal bundle of "what ifs" for both sides, with arguments being made by Republicans and Democrats alike that the other side played its hand better. Many conservatives believe that a GOP-majority House could have gotten a better deal in 2011 than was agreed to in the past few weeks. With a resurgent Obama and a Senate maintaining a Democrat majority, I'm skeptical of that claim. Furthermore, it's hard to believe that whatever modest improvement could have been made would have been worth the economic turmoil certain to have been caused by tax rates rising, even if that rise were later retroactively rescinded.

The presidential election, just like our just-passed mid-term election, will be all about government spending and unemployment. While a few on the extremes of both parties might remember DADT repeal going into the 2012 elections, nobody will particularly care or talk about the 9/11 health care bill or the START Treaty. The tax issues, on the other hand, will be front and center again as the tax rate extension expires in two years.

With Obama on record as (still) opposing that extension for the upper bracket but nevertheless agreeing to it, he's put himself in a nearly no-win situation going into that critical debate in 2012. If the economy is going badly, he may try to argue "see, the tax cuts didn't help," but that argument is a loser among everyone but the far left. Nobody gets punished like incumbents for persistent unemployment. If the economy is going well, Obama may try to argue "now that we're back on track, we don't need to give this gift to rich people," but that argument won't work because the facts on the ground will lead people to understand implicitly that lower tax rates, even on the evil rich, are good for everyone who would like to be employed.

In other words, Obama's Republican opponent will either be able to argue that Obama's enormous deficit spending has kept unemployment stubbornly, painfully high or that Obama's economic views risk the nascent (or perhaps then adolescent) recovery in employment. (Employment is key because people can't eat statistical GDP growth.)

The incoming Congress will have a large House Republican majority and the incoming Senate will have 23 Democrats (including Sanders and Lieberman) facing re-election in 2012 versus only 10 Republicans, many of whom will be forced to move to the center to protect their jobs. Particularly with Nancy Pelosi's scowl being moved out of the Speaker's chair, Barack Obama will reassume his rightful place as the representative of MoveOn.org, the Sierra Club, and every other free enterprise-hating left-wing organization in America. Oh, and the trial lawyers as well.

Every month will bring a new Republican assault on Obamacare, assaults that are likely to remain popular with the American people and to hurt Obama and other Democrats' electoral chances in 2012. Every budget battle will be extremely difficult for Obama to win, particularly with the primacy of the House over the Senate on revenue-related legislation.

And the impact of the Tea Party on the last election will weigh on the minds of would-be "moderate" Republicans along with Democrats in purple or red states, leaving Obama far fewer votes to cajole and convince.

Furthermore, if Obama hopes to win reelection in 2012, he will have to have accomplished something during the next two years. Since he can't get his far left agenda enacted without a Pelosi-run House, he'll have to occasionally slap down the "Progressive" wing of his own party, his erstwhile base of support. In other words, future Obama victories will likely come at the political expense of his fellow travelers. Obama can win or left-wing members of Congress can win, but probably not both.

Going back to the boxing metaphor, while Obama came out fighting after being badly beaten in the last round, it remains likely that the damage already done to him and his party in the last election makes his lame duck success a temporary, if impressive, resurgence -- on his way to losing by decision in 2012.

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.