It was, by any definition, a triumphant day for President Obama—and a warning to his adversaries that reports of his political demise are greatly exaggerated.
As the president celebrated an early Christmas and prepared to fly off to Hawaii on Wednesday, several Republican strategists, including those likely to be professionally engaged in the 2012 campaign, were giving the devil his due.
“I think it would be very foolish to write President Obama off,” Republican media guru Mike Murphy emailed me in one of the grudging bouquets that arrived from across the aisle. “The GOP now has a great shot in 2012, but 23 months is a very long time in politics. President Obama is showing an impressive new ruthlessness with his liberal base that, combined with an economic recovery, will augur well for him in a national election.”
Obama’s remarkable day, only six weeks after disastrous midterm elections in which Republicans captured the House and increased their strength in the Senate, began when he presided over an emotional signing ceremony for the repeal of the Clinton-era Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that excluded openly gay men and women from military service. Then the once-recalcitrant Senate ratified the START nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Russians, and the House and Senate passed long-delayed health-care benefits for 9/11 first responders.
It was, for Obama, a Christmas week trifecta.
“One thing I hope people have seen during this lame duck—I am persistent,” the president told a visibly awestruck White House press corps on Wednesday afternoon. “If I believe in something strongly, I stay on it.”
Reuters correspondent Caren Bohan asked if he felt like the “Comeback Kid” after racking up what she described as “a lot of wins in the last few weeks that a lot of people thought would be difficult to come by.” And ABC News’ Jake Tapper offered the president heartfelt congratulations for his victory on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
The 49-year-old Obama, graying at the temples and sporting a somber light-blue tie, was looking, let’s face it, exceptionally presidential. He wore a mask of sobriety that only partly concealed an underlying giddiness.
“One thing I hope people have seen during this lame duck—I am persistent,” the president told a visibly awestruck White House press corps. “If I believe in something strongly, I stay on it.”
“As I said right after the midterm elections, we took a shellacking. And I take responsibility for that,” Obama told Bohan with becoming modesty. “But I think what’s happened over the last several weeks is not a victory for me, it’s a victory for the American people.”
Republican media consultant Larry McCarthy, who worked for Mitt Romney in 2008, was at pains to minimize Obama’s success but conceded that “he’s probably bottomed out with independents,” the voters who put him over the top last time against Sen. John McCain, and enjoys job performance and personal approval ratings well within the norm of presidents who have ended up receiving a second term.
“I think it’s the classic good news/bad news situation,” McCarthy told me. “There’s no question that Obama had a better December than November, but only in the same way that Mrs. Lincoln had a better May 1865 than she did April 1865... There has been the historic rejection of his agenda; his health-care program has been suffering major legal attacks; and then the Democrats lost six electoral votes with the new Census. And giving the Republicans what they wanted on tax cuts in exchange for what they gave up on the economic front was, from my perspective, something he did only out of sheer necessity because nothing else is working. If the economy remains weak for two more years, he’ll suffer huge problems.”
And yet McCarthy added: “Obama was one of the greatest candidates in history and one of the weaker presidents. He’ll be formidable against anybody he’s up against.” When the president bypassed the House Democratic leadership, notably departing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to negotiate with the Republicans on extending tax cuts for the wealthy, and then accused his liberal detractors of being “sanctimonious” in a sour news conference announcing the deal, “I think he made a very cold-blooded political calculation—‘Is it worth pissing off our base on the hated Bush tax cuts in exchange for looking better to Republicans and soft independents?’” McCarthy said. “It was the only calculation he could have made.”
Translation: The president has become a helluva smart politician.
Veteran Republican strategist Eddie Mahe offered up the caveat that “how he’s doing in December of this year doesn’t have a great deal to do with how he’ll be doing in November 2012.” Mahe suggested Obama might have difficulty energizing young-voter and African-American turnout with the same intensity he managed in 2008. Mahe also claimed that this president, for all his evident pragmatism, is “a hard-core left-wing liberal.”
But Mahe said that if the economy demonstrably improves, and not necessarily by much, Obama will be hard to beat. “Nine percent unemployment is the new status quo,” Mahe told me. “It would probably result in his reelection, in my mind a painful outcome, if the economy could get itself back together again.” As it happens, there has a been a bubble of rosy economic predictions in recent days, notably a top Goldman Sachs analyst’s estimate that the S&P 500 will rise 20 percent in the coming year.
If Obama’s famously disciplined and effective presidential campaign team can reconstitute itself in 2012, and the president avoids gaffes and sticks to the plan devised by his strategists, that will be yet another point in his favor, Mahe said. “I think the Republicans should assume that will be the case,” he added.
The president might be riding high for the moment, but his exalted position is ephemeral. “It’s December now. That was November when things were bad,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “We get bored with the same storyline; it’s a new month. We have to change.”
Sabato added: “Politics is the ultimate roller coaster. You never know whether you’re going to be at the top or the bottom.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.