Obama hails 'progress' despite forecasts of gridlock

By Peter Wallsten and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 12:00 AM

President Obama wrapped up an unexpectedly productive and politically successful lame-duck session of Congress on Wednesday with a sweeping assessment of his achievements.

He pronounced the New START nuclear pact with Russia "the most significant arms-control agreement in nearly two decades" and said economists "across the political spectrum" agreed the deal he struck with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts would speed economic growth. All in all, Obama concluded, this was "the most productive post-election period we've had in decades" and "the most productive two years that we've had in generations."

But even as he trumpeted his accomplishments at a news conference intended to showcase what his aides cast as a political revival, Obama grew most animated about the one that got away: his failure to win enough support to pass the DREAM Act, which would have allowed some children of illegal immigrants to gain citizenship.

"Maybe my biggest disappointment was this DREAM Act vote," he said. He added later that he intended to seek Republican support and take the case to the public for a broader immigration overhaul.

"One thing I hope people have seen during this lame-duck - I am persistent," the president said after a reporter asked whether he would continue to push the immigration measure next year. "If I believe in something strongly, I stay on it. And I believe strongly in this."

Obama suggested the legislation passed this month demonstrated that bipartisanship is possible in Washington. "We are not doomed to endless gridlock," he said.

Yet his remarks on immigration and other issues - including a vow to continue fighting Republicans, who want to permanently extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans - underscored the struggles ahead for him next year when Republicans return with renewed strength in the Senate and a majority in the House.

Republicans questioned the idea that Obama had gotten the upper hand. They said the key victories - the START agreement and the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly in the military - had bipartisan support before the lame-duck session began. The GOP also successfully blocked a major budget bill and won an extension of tax cuts on the highest incomes.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said his top political goal in the new Congress will be Obama's defeat in 2012.

Some Obama supporters cautioned that despite the president's hopeful tone, this month's flurry of legislative accomplishments should not be seen as a harbinger of harmony over the next two years.

"Clearly, they've all heard the same lesson about the importance of compromise," said Don Baer, a former senior adviser in the Clinton administration. "But I don't think that means we're entering an era of good feeling, and many issues - especially budget issues - are going to get a lot harder."

Obama's mood Wednesday contrasted sharply with his outlook at some of his public appearances after November's midterm elections, in which he sometimes seemed irritated and deflated.

On the morning after the election, he acknowledged his party's sound defeat, calling it a "shellacking." He angered liberals and Republicans this month in announcing his deal to extend tax cuts and jobless benefits, calling his base "sanctimonious" for opposing compromises and accusing the GOP of holding Americans "hostage" in threatening to block an extension of unemployment insurance.

Democratic strategists and some members of Congress blamed the president for the electoral losses, suggesting his focus last year on the health-care overhaul angered voters anxious about jobs and economic turmoil.

But things appeared to turn back around for the president during the lame-duck session, starting with the tax deal, continuing with the passage this week of the repeal of the "don't ask" policy and culminating with Wednesday's approval of the nuclear arms agreement with Russia.

Polls showed that the tax compromise found favor among independent voters and whites who had shifted away from Obama and the Democrats. Liberals still grousing about what they called a "capitulation" on taxes celebrated the repeal of "don't ask" as a historic civil rights victory.

Obama aides said Wednesday that the change can be attributed to a more aggressive and bipartisan legislative approach by the White House that began, in some cases, before Election Day. In August, Obama had his first-one-on-one meeting with McConnell, who had sharply opposed much of the president's agenda. Polls by then suggested that Democrats would lose large numbers of seats in the midterm elections, and the president told McConnell privately that he hoped the administration could work more closely with Republicans in the future.

As the lame-duck session got underway, Obama switched his legislative strategy. Instead of relying on the votes of congressional Democrats and hoping to woo a handful of Republicans, as he had done for much of the past two years, he dispatched Vice President Biden to work with McConnell to reach the tax compromise.

Liberal Democrats were outraged that Obama, in extending tax cuts for the wealthy, so quickly abandoned his campaign pledge to repeal the tax cuts on family income above $250,000 - and, in the view of many lawmakers, abandoned an effective weapon to paint the GOP as favoring the rich over the middle class.

The White House decided it could reach beyond the liberal base and disaffected Democratic lawmakers. When former president Bill Clinton came to the White House for a meeting Obama had sought long before the tax deal, Clinton offered to call lawmakers and get them to support the agreement.

Obama had a different idea. He asked Clinton to accompany him to the White House briefing room and announce his support to the world. Even after Obama left the room to attend a White House holiday party, Clinton stayed at the podium for nearly half an hour, making the president's case for him on live television.

On Wednesday, it was Obama who dominated the stage. After a year of dismal poll ratings and seemingly declining influence, Obama seemed to be taking a victory lap of sorts - at his press conference and at an emotional bill signing earlier in the day for the "don't ask" repeal.

Despite his calls for bipartisan cooperation, Obama seemed to be showing what is likely to be a core theme of his reelection campaign: presenting himself as a populist fighter for middle-class workers.

"So we are going to have to compare the option of maintaining the tax cuts for the wealthy permanently versus spending on these things that we think are important," he said, "and that's a debate that I welcome."

Staff writers Paul Kane and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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