For a bunch of people who don’t believe that Barack Obama celebrates Christmas, Republicans sure are going out of their way to make sure the president has a merry one. The short-sighted stupidity of the House Republicans is hardly to be believed. The presidential nomination contest is as unsettled as ever and still features a bunch of candidates who are about as appealing to most Americans as Aunt Gladys’s fruitcake (fruitcake . . . a more apposite metaphor I’ve rarely stumbled upon). Obama is ticking up in polls, and there are even a few actual green shoots sprouting up from the economic pastures. The year coming to a close was a hideous one for Obama most of the way through. But who’ll remember that when the ball drops? He’s heading into the election year with agreeable winds behind him.
Opening with the Congress: If you resisted the belief that the Tea Partiers are living in their own desiccated cocoons, I don’t see how you can deny it now. Did they not know how badly this would look for them, or did they know and just not care? Or—worst of all, and probably most likely—did knowing that it would look bad in some perverse way make them all the more eager to block the payroll-tax extension? They’re like the proverbial alcoholic who wants to get caught—the constant pressure of pretending to be interested in legislating had led to the point where they simply couldn’t live the lie any longer.
The extremists wanted a showdown. John Boehner—who, after all, wants to remain in favor with these people because he wants to keep his job next session—let them have their way. He had no real choice. The spin from Eric Cantor and the others was notably laughable. Usually, the Republicans are brilliant with the spin; even when what they’re saying hasn’t the remotest relationship to the truth or rational earth logic and discourse, they have a flair for making what they’re doing sound reasonable. But you really had to be deep into the Kool-Aid to believe these lines. The biggest howler, which I heard repeated by several members on an NPR report Tuesday evening, lit into the folks across the dome, the senators, for going home early: by gum, the American people have to work until Christmas Eve, and so will we! Congress’ track record at feeling the peoples’ pain on such matters is not especially lengthy or enviable.
It’s all a reminder that Obama won’t be running just against a Republican candidate. He’ll be running, as he has been, against a Republican Congress. And the public is finally getting the message that they are breathing a different kind of air from the rest of us. Check out this Pew poll from last week showing that majorities agree that the GOP is more extreme and less amenable to compromise than the Democrats.
On the campaign front, while the Newt nonsense has settled down, two facts remain. First, Iowa is still up in the air and could deliver a jolting surprise. Second, even if the chalk horse wins the nomination fairly early, he’s just not a very well-loved horse. Mitt Romney tends to trail Obama in recent surveys in Ohio, Florida, and Colorado. North Carolina is a dead heat, but with Obama usually ahead by a figure within the margin of error. Obviously, if Obama were to end up carrying those four states, the election would be basically a rout. The voting is many months away, but my point is Romney’s relative weakness. A more attractive and popular Republican candidate would be leading Obama in North Carolina and Florida by at least six or eight points right now. And if the nominee is anyone but Romney, there’s hardly a point to even holding the election.
As for Obama’s uptick in that Washington Post poll to 49 percent approval, I’m not yet sold that it’s real. A CNN survey agreed on 49; Gallup daily tracking said 43 (all numbers here). I tend to think it’s about two-thirds real. But realer than that might be this steady stream of cautiously encouraging economic news. First-time jobless claims hit a nine-month low earlier in December. Housing starts for November were up impressively, signaling, say the experts, the makings of a tentative recovery. Consumer confidence is up, and the trade deficit is down. All these put together must mean something. Europe could drag us down, but the signs are that the economy is awakening from its long slumber.
On the domestic front, Obama has had a mostly grim year. The endless series of government shutdown threats and especially the debt-ceiling horror represented hideous lows. I wondered how he dragged himself to work in August, so thorough was his humiliation at the GOP’s hands. The following month, Gawker reported that it had heard The New York Times was reporting out a story on whether Obama was depressed—not colloquially but clinically. I don’t see that it ever ran. The story is past its sell-by date now. One can’t yet call him a happy man. But just watching the House GOP must make him not care what Michelle gets him for Christmas, because it’s all the present he needs.