Originally Published 2010-12-31 00:00:00 Published on Dec 31, 2010
US President Barack Obama's popularity, as well as that of his party, has gone up after his shrewd handling of the lame-duck Congress session. Commentators are now calling him the 'comeback kid' just as they did Clinton in 1994.
New Year Gifts for Obama
After his ‘shellacking’ in the midterm polls, President Obama seemed a diminished political figure in Washington. But with the recent repeal of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ (DADT) ban, the compromise on tax cuts, the 9/11 healthcare bill and the passage of the New START treaty in the Senate, he seems to have rebounded with vigour and looks like a stronger President. The passage of these bills were helped by the fact that a number of Democrats and moderate Republicans who had lost re-election bids in the November 2010 elections could afford to align with the President as they no longer had to fear voters’ anger. Obama’s popularity as well as that of his party has gone up after his shrewd handling of the lame-duck session. In fact, a recent CNN poll shows that 56 percent approve of his handling of the session as opposed to 53 percent who disapproved of the Republicans’ handling of the session.1  Commentators in Washington are now calling Obama the ‘comeback kid’ just as they did Clinton when he bounced back after the Republicans won the Congressional midterm elections in 1994.2  Obama’s political stature that had diminished in the midterm polls seems to have grown in strength with him seeming to shift towards bipartisanship and compromise with the Republicans in the larger interests of the nation.

The passage of the above bills in the lame-duck session is important as they generated a lot of bitterness on Capitol Hill as well as in the American media. One of the most acrimonious debates on Capitol Hill was about the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the richest Americans, which were due to expire by the end of the year. President Barack Obama agreed to keep all of the Bush-era tax cuts for two more years in an attempt to resolve differences with Republicans in Congress. Obama reached out to the Republicans and agreed to an extension of Bush’s tax cuts for two years in return for an extension of unemployment benefits, a one–year reduction in payroll taxes and continuation of refundable tax credits. The compromise angered many liberals and Democrats who had strong views against extending tax cuts to the rich.

Obama’s willingness to compromise on the tax cuts and his efforts to be bipartisan set the tome for the passage of the other legislations mentioned above. The repeal of the DADT ban which had prevented gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the US military is a move forward towards a more progressive America. The repeal, which was one of Obama’s promises during his election campaign, gives new impetus to the fight for gay rights and human rights and is one of the most significant civil rights legislation since Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Republican opposition was despite opinion polls showing support for the repeal and a comprehensive review by the Pentagon which showed that allowing gays to serve would not cause any problems in the military. The grounds for the Republicans’ open hostility was that it would impede battle effectiveness and of course the GOP’s antipathy to gay rights. The repeal was finally passed in the Senate with quite a few Republicans crossing over to the Democrats’ side. The repeal also made the liberals who were angry over Obama’s compromise on the Bush-era tax cuts happy.

The New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia was at the heart of much controversy this year after the midterm elections, with many key Republican Senators refusing to endorse it. The treaty limits the number of nuclear warheads that each country can possess to 1550 from the present ceiling of 2200 and restarts onsite weapons inspections. Despite endorsements for the treaty from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military and all the living former Secretaries of State as well as former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W Bush, many Republicans were against the treaty. However, thirteen Republicans broke party ranks to support the Democrats in ratifying the treaty. The ratification of the treaty would put back on track Obama’s ‘reset’ with Russia, despite some strains in the relationship due to Wikileaks’ exposure of what American diplomats really think of Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev. Moreover, as the former Secretary of Defense and former Director of Central Intelligence, James R. Schlesinger said to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2010, if the US failed to ratify the treaty, it would have a “detrimental effect” on the US’ “ability to influence others with regard to particularly the non-proliferation issues”.3  Republicans feared that the treaty would prevent the US from building a missile defence shield. Obama assuaged fears on this score by allowing amendments that underlined his administration’s commitment to a limited missile defence shield and committing more than $80 billion to modernising the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Another bill passed was the 9/11 health bill or the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act which gives health benefits to the first responders to 9/11, including fire-fighters and policemen, survivors of the 9/11 attacks and people living near the site. Many of these people had become sick because of inhaling the noxious fumes and dust at Ground Zero. This bill seeks to compensate them by giving them some medical benefits and compensates them for job and economic losses due to ill health. The Republicans initially opposed the bill on the grounds that it would add to the deficit, but had to retract after a national outcry over their stance and after Obama held out a compromise on the bill. The compromise with the Republicans reduces the total cost of the bill, closes the compensation fund after five years and limits lawyers’ fees so as to cut costs.

Of course, there were failures too. For instance, one of Obama’s pet legislations, the DREAM act, which would have given citizenship to children of illegal migrants who attend college or join the military, did not get passed. He has vowed to continue trying to get the legislation through by taking it to the public, but is not likely to happen soon. He also failed to garner support for a comprehensive budget for 2011.

In short, this lame duck session of the Congress has been one of the most productive in recent history. Through bipartisanship and compromise, it proved that the Republicans and Democrats can reach across the aisle and come together to pass legislation on important issues. It also showed Obama’s influence and ability to get work done by playing to his 2008 election campaign theme of ‘changing’ partisan politics in Washington. Obama pleased the moderates and Republicans by compromising on the tax cuts and the Liberals and Democrats by ensuring that the DADT ban got repealed, getting the START treaty ratified and the 9/11 healthcare bill passed. Many analysts feel that Obama moved towards the centre to ensure that these bills get passed so that his ensuring that his support base remains secure. However, Obama’s failure to get the DREAM Act passed and the acrimonious debates over many of the bills that did get passed portends to much tougher battles on Capitol Hill between the While House and Congress when the new Republican-dominated Congress takes office in early 2011.

(Uma Purushotaman is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

< class="text11verdana">1  Cited in Greg Sargent, ‘Obama Bested GOP in Extraordinary Lame-duck Session’, The Washington Post, 22 December 2010, available at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line
2  See, for instance, Charles Krauthammer’s article, ‘The new comeback kid’, The Washington Post, 17 December 2010,  available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/16/AR2010121604846.html
3  Quoted in ‘U.S. Military Leaders and Bipartisan National Security Officials Overwhelmingly Support New START’, Issue Brief, vol.2, No.44, 16 December 2010, available at http://www.armscontrol.org/issuebriefs/bipartisanNewSTARTSupport

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