Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shellac remover

In the days and weeks after the November midterm elections, naysayers across the political spectrum and everyone in the punditburo had all but dispatched the tumbrels to the driveway of the White House, ready to collect President Obama — “dead man walking!” — for a short ride to the guillotine. An apparent stalemate on the Bush tax cuts and seeming inaction on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell led some in high and televised places to cut him dead. “Blue Dog Democrat!” “Traitor to the base!” “Blasphemer!”

What a difference a shellacking makes.

At a speed almost too fast to believe, President Obama’s fortunes have shifted hugely to the positive on the strength of two huge back-to-back wins in Congress, and the prospect of at least one more in the coming days. By making a pivot to practicality on an economic issue, by cultivating an overdue urgency (all unfinished bills die at the end of a Congress and must be reintroduced) and by sticking to his philosophical guns on a social and moral issue, Team Obama’s gone a long way to minimize some of the impact of the November midterms. And with big wins under his belt at year’s end, the president and the Democrats in Congress are well positioned to weather the early Tea Party Republican storm on Capitol Hill, starting Jan. 3.

First came the tax-cut bill. Despite much gnashing of progressives’ teeth, the automatic outrage of conservatives and the implied threat by the Moody’s credit-rating concern that the AAA bond rating of the United States could be damaged if it passed, the Motion to Invoke Cloture on the Motion to Concur in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to HR 4853, the Tax Relief Act survived two votes in the Senate, after earlier overwhelming passage in the House.

President Obama signed the measure, expected to cost $858 billion, into law on Friday. Result: A 2 percent payroll tax cut for everyday wage-earners, for a year; extension of both college tax credits and child tax credits; small-business tax write-offs; an additional 13 months of unemployment benefits for millions out of work; a 35 percent estate tax rate; and an across-the-board extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone. Even the millionaires and billionaires, for whom the personal benefits of the tax cuts won’t be much more than the money in the couch cushions at home.

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Then there’s the policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which for 17 years effectively tried to lock gays and lesbians out of the armed forces. After furious debate on Capitol Hill, and despite the righteous fulminations of Sen. John McCain, the most corrosive civil rights issue since the civil rights era went almost quietly. DADT died the death on Saturday, Dec. 18, at 3:30 p.m., when the Senate voted 65-31 and the Motion to Concur in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to HR 2965, the DADT Act, was adopted.

President Obama will sign that into law on Wednesday.

The next two orders of business, unfinished right now:

• The new START treaty with the Russians, necessary to restore the United States’ ability to monitor Russian nuclear facilities on the ground, President Obama signed the treaty with Soviet President Medvedev back in April, but it requires ratification by the Senate to take effect. Today, by a vote of 67-28, the Senate agreed to a final ratification vote on the treaty on Wednesday — the same day Obama’s signing DADT into law. The vote is generally expected to pass with bipartisan support.

• The 9/11 first responders bill, which would provide supplemental medical benefits for the thousands of police officers, firefighters, paramedics and other rescue and recovery personnel who sifted through the rubble of the World Trade Center towers in the months of horror after Sept. 11, 2001, at no small cost to their health.

There’s a fairly good chance that bill will pass by week’s end, once enough Senate Republicans can be shamed into voting for passage.

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Nothing succeeds like success, of course, but certainly in the nearly two months since November’s mugging and maybe the nearly two years since the president took office, Obama hasn’t connected with this many successive fastballs before. Ever. The luster’s bright again, the swagger’s back. The boss has his three-point game on.

And it’s more than mere optics: The new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 55 percent of Americans think Obama’s policies will move the country in the right direction, 42 percent thinking the opposite.

This in the wake of a broad Republican victory in Congress just seven weeks ago.

That same poll determined that 44 percent of those sampled think Republican policies will move the country in the right direction, 51 percent thinking the opposite.

This in the wake of a broad Republican victory in Congress just seven weeks ago.

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This string of wins should send a message to that most obstreperous aspect of the Republican identity, the Tea Party crowd, set to move into its lottery-determined offices on Jan. 5. The Tea Bag crew has loudly announced since before the election its plan to Take the Country Back — an empty moral kiosk usually defined as a perceived need to rescue the country from Big Government, Too Many Taxes, and a loss of American Values.

Who they’ll be Taking the Country Back from remains to be seen. But as a practical matter, Obama’s outflanked the Tea sippers on the big issue of taxes; with the across-the-board tax cuts now the law of the land, that issue’s largely off limits as a PR bludgeon to be used against Obama, and it will be for two years. Nothing to see here, folks.

And when you take the broad view of Obama’s earlier accomplishments in less than two years in the Oval Office — SCHIP (health insurance for children), health-care reform, student loan reform, credit-card industry reform, hate crimes prevention, equal pay for women, long-overdue compensation for black farmers — the Tea Party Republicans will have a hard time in general demonizing the president for not doing the people’s business.

President Obama ends 2010 with the wind at his back, despite the shellacking of the November midterms. This still-expanding portfolio of triumphs goes a long way to blunting the sting of those defeats. Even as the 112th Republican-controlled Congress gets ready to boot up, there’s still some question as to whether and how much the new Republican kids on the hill will play nice with the bigger Republican kids.

For all their swagger and messianic zeal, the Tea Party Republicans come on the scene with a surplus of numbers and a deficit of knowledge about the arcane, procedural, fractious legislative world they’re about to inhabit. Simply put, they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s basically the difference between campaigning and governing.

Obama knows the difference. The Tea Party Republicans have yet to find that out. Like optimism, experience is a force multiplier, too.

Image credit: President Obama: The Huffington Post. Obama signs tax-cut bill: Chuck Kennedy/The White House.

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