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A lame-duck session with unexpected victories

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 4:34 PM

When the lame-duck session of Congress started more than a month ago, President Obama looked defeated and deflated, publicly acknowledging the "shellacking" his party had taken in the November midterm elections.

Now, a six-week session that was expected to reflect a weakened president has turned into a surprising success. On Wednesday, Obama signed into law the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members, and the Senate approved a new nuclear treaty with Russia that the president had declared a top priority.

Those accomplishments come after Obama successfully negotiated a free-trade agreement with South Korea, reached a deal with Republicans that extended unemployment benefits and prevented a tax hike for millions of Americans and signed a bill that will make school lunches healthier.

This blitz of bill signings completes a dramatic first two years for the nation's first black president that included the enactment of arguably the most major liberal policies since the Johnson administration but also the Democrats' biggest loss of House seats in 72 years.

After the election defeats and bitter battles over the health care and financial regulation legislation, the next two years were widely expected to be tied up by gridlock between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic president. But the past month suggests the future could be different.

Obama and his team reinvented their political approach over the past several weeks to win key Republican votes, no longer relying mainly on the huge Democratic majorities in Congress that they won't have in the new year.

Republicans, meanwhile, said they would welcome working with Obama on issues where the two sides agree, as even as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reaffirmed that his top goal for the two next two years was ensuring that the president did not win a second term.

"With the lame duck, the 111th Congress may even surpass the 89th [of President Lyndon Johnson] in terms of accomplishments," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Still, he said, "the sluggish economy and the protracted and partisan battles on many of these issues, including the deliberate actions in the Senate by Republicans to slow everything down and use the tools of obstruction, made most of the wins ugly ones, leaving liberals and many others disillusioned."

The lame duck in some ways was a condensed version of the complicated first two years of the Obama presidency: a long list of legislative accomplishments, middling poll numbers and a stalled economy that could affect his chances for reelection.

"There was a lot of legislation, but the only issue people care about is jobs," said Republican pollster David Winston.

Obama faced big battles to win his priorities. But in signing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," he achieved another long-held Democratic goal, as he did in pushing through a health-care law that will extend coverage to more than 30 million people.

Yet liberal activists in his party will enter 2011 frustrated with the president's governing, saying that he has been too cautious and has squandered the support of the large Democratic majorities he has had since he took office. Those tensions could complicate any attempts by Obama to move to the political center next year and were sharply evident when Obama announced his compromise with Republicans on the tax bill. Few Democrats on Capitol Hill were willing to back the deal initially, so the administration turned to the mayor of Kokomo, Ind., and other local politicians to publicly tout the package.

Obama's uphill push for the bill's passage also led this month to one of the most unusual White House news conferences ever given by a standing president. Calling on former president Bill Clinton to help convince voters and lawmakers of the merits of the tax package, Obama found himself standing silently to the side while a confident Clinton took over the podium for a long question-and-answer session - a reminder of the two leaders' contrasting styles.

In the final vote, most Democrats ended up backing the tax agreement.

Amid the successes, however, the lame-duck session was far from perfect for Obama. Latino activists were furious that the Senate blocked a provision in the Dream Act that would have created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

And the tax-cut agreement was, in effect, a concession of defeat on a core issue: Obama had spent four years attacking the tax cuts for upper-income Americans that he ended up extending, along with a higher exemption on the estate tax, which Democrats also opposed.

"Our leverage forced the White House to abandon its 'class warfare' rhetoric, stop pandering to the president's left-wing base, and do the right thing for American taxpayers and job creators," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.).

What the past few weeks mean for the future of Obama's presidency is an open question. Administration aides have already laid out issues, such as education reform, where they believe the two parties can strike agreements over the next two years.

But Republicans have committed to deep cuts in federal spending and have said they want to defund the health-care legislation.

White House officials have been cautious about declaring the last month any kind of comeback. They emphasized the tax agreement could help boost the economy. But they avoided mention of the job growth that they promised after last year's stimulus package, which did not reduce the unemployment rate nearly as much as the administration said it would.

But whatever happens next, the lame-duck session marked a new strategy for trying to win over political foes and discontented supporters that administration officials say will continue.

After he was criticized for not listening enough in previous meetings, the president held closed-door sessions with Republicans and later corporate executives, two groups who opposed much of his agenda the past two years, to try to mend strained relationships.

And in the last two weeks, Obama personally implored lawmakers to back the tax deal and the New START treaty in a way he had not done since his campaign for health-care legislation.

"They were prepared to pull out all the stops," said William Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton who has frequently criticized the Obama White House's strategy. "They were willing to do everything within reason to get it done. The president may have learned a lesson that if he is prepared to sound a certain trumpet, not a uncertain one, he can get things done."

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