Trouble Ahead

Obama: Lamest Duck Ever?

Almost every two-term president gets a pasting in the midterms, but Obama now faces lame-duck issues on an historic scale.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

From The New York Times, Nov. 5, 1986:

President Reagan pledged today to “complete the revolution that we have so well begun” and said that his domestic and foreign policy agenda remained unchanged despite the Republicans’ loss of control of the Senate.

President Obama’s Wednesday press conference—28 years to the day after Reagan’s post-election comments—struck the same theme with the same lack of contrition. The difference from 1986 is that Reagan had decent relations with the opposite party on Capitol Hill and Obama doesn’t. The question now is whether the Kentucky bourbon he promised to drink with Sen. Mitch McConnell will lubricate deals or just further burn the imbibers.

First, the similarities to 1986. Republicans lost eight Senate seats in the sixth year of Reagan’s presidency, giving the other party a 55-45 majority; Democrats are on track to lose eight Senate seats in the sixth year of Obama’s presidency, giving the other party a likely 54-46 majority. Democrats after the 1986 election held 258 House seats; Republicans after 2014 will hold 248 House seats.

Both presidents fit the historical pattern of third-quarter voter fatigue. In all of American history, the party holding the White House has lost seats in Congress in the sixth year of a two-term presidency in every election except 1822 (when James Monroe was president) and 1998 (when voters wanted to punish Republicans for moving toward impeaching Bill Clinton). Even Franklin Roosevelt and the dominant Democratic Party he led during the New Deal lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats in the 1938 midterms.

All post-war two-term presidents—Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama—have spent their last two years facing congresses where not one but both houses were controlled by the other party.

Yes, 2014 was a big Republican win, but this idea that Obama showed exceptional weakness in the midterms is simply inaccurate. The surprising Democratic loss of governorships related—as those races typically do—to local circumstances. In the Senate contests, the states where the president was shunned by Democrats who didn’t want him campaigning for them were mostly the same states where Obama didn’t even campaign for himself in 2008 and 2012. Iowa and Colorado were the only states Obama carried in 2012 that Democrats lost in 2014. The rest of the losses came in Romney red states, plus purple North Carolina (where Sen. Kay Hagan lost by only 1.7 percent). In 1986, by contrast, all eight seats lost by Republican incumbents came in states Reagan had handily carried just two years earlier.

But if Obama is merely a garden-variety lame duck in historical terms, he’s swimming in unusually treacherous waters. His challenge is to move beyond his understandable resentment of the Republican leadership for sabotaging him during a crisis (when he was trying to prevent another Great Depression in 2009). He needs to recognize that his interests and the Republicans’ are in perverse alignment right now and make up for lost time by forging compromise across the aisle, as Reagan did when he shared beers with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Unfortunately, the president is not off to a good start. His post-election press conference was too long, too provocative, and too stingy in his phoned-in praise for the winners. Obama managed the extraordinary feat of making McConnell look gracious by comparison.

Just before the president took the stage, McConnell held an uncharacteristically amiable press conference in which he ruled out more government shutdowns and showed respect for the president’s veto pen, but also said that the president would “poison the well” by signing an executive order legalizing millions of immigrants. It would be “like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

Obama then came out and practically waved it, saying he expected to sign the executive order “before the end of the year,” adding “What I’m not going to do is wait.”

Why not? A skillful legislative operator would have seen the outlines of a deal: No executive order in exchange for lifting the so-called Hastert Rule (named for former House Speaker Denny Hastert), which by recent tradition requires that House speakers only bring bills to the floor that can pass with a majority of the majority (Republicans in this case). It was this rule, not Boehner’s personal opposition, that prevented the House from voting on the comprehensive immigration bill that the Senate passed in July 2013. Had the Hastert Rule not existed, a combination of Democrats and a minority of Republicans would have approved the landmark legislation in the House and it would have been signed into law.

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It’s possible that Obama is trying to tee up such a deal in the lame-duck session by striking a theatrically tough posture as a negotiating position, but don’t bet on it. “He understands there are [theatrical] demands in campaigns,” David Axelrod, his former chief political adviser, told me Wednesday. “But he believes, like Mario Cuomo, that you ‘campaign in poetry and govern in prose.’ So he doesn’t embrace the theatrical elements in office. The problem is, you can’t divorce politics and governing. They’re of one piece.”

Obama’s disdain for the grubby necessities of politics led Jonathan Karl of ABC News to ask at the press conference why he has only held a couple of one-on-one meetings with McConnell in nearly six years—a dereliction of political duty that in my mind constitutes one of Obama’s biggest mistakes. Karl also made note of what may be the single dumbest presidential one-liner of all time, when Obama asked the audience sarcastically at the 2013 White House Correspondents Dinner, “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”

Obama responded to Karl’s question with an audible sigh. Was it a sigh of irritation at the inevitable question, reminiscent of the weary sighing that (according to overheated press accounts) helped sink Al Gore in his first debate with George W. Bush in 2000? Or was it the sigh of a president who understood at last that he was paying a price for not investing in the personal relationships that—for better or worse—are the currency of political life in Washington?

Obama tried to make it seem that it was the latter. He joked of letting House Speaker John Boehner win at golf, which Boehner no doubt found unfunny considering that he’s a much better golfer than the president. And Obama suggested that he and McConnell could share some Kentucky bourbon.

The gesture didn’t seem convincing. I got the sense that even after the midterms, Obama still feels GOP obstruction is one hundred percent responsible for his problems. He might be right. You could never go broke underestimating the GOP’s desire to mess with this president.

And Democrats have reason to see this as a sucker’s game, where their side (untroubled by primary challenges) is willing to compromise, in the spirit of the Founders, while Republicans (terrified of primary challenges) refuse to, thereby shifting everything to the right.

But the president also stressed the importance of hope and optimism. If McConnell and Boehner can somehow neutralize Ted Cruz and the House Tea Partiers (a big if), maybe both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue can meet in the middle and get something done, which is what the voters in the last four elections have been asking for.

In the short window before the 2016 campaign begins in earnest, the “big one” remains immigration. It’s in the interest of the GOP, which in 2016 will need more than the 29 percent of the Latino vote received by Mitt Romney to win the White House, not to mention having to defend seven seats in deep-blue states. And it’s in the interest of a president turning his eyes toward his legacy.

Of course the odds against achieving anything more than bills on Ebola, ISIS, and maybe infrastructure are steep. Lots of Republicans feel they were sent to Washington to beat up on immigrants.

That’s where old-fashioned backroom deal-making comes in. During the 1940s and 1950s, House Speaker Sam Rayburn hosted an informal gathering in a Capitol hideaway office that was dubbed “The Board of Education.” No panderers or demagogues allowed.

Many of the great bills of the post-war era emerged from those sessions.

The only drink served was bourbon.