Obama's political fightback has given US a precedent
A mid-term rout had Democrats looking down and out but a run of successes has changed the game, says Rupert Cornwell
Published 30/12/2010 | 08:00
Life at the 'winter White House' at Paradise Point, Hawaii, must be especially sweet. A spot of golf, a dip in the surf - and a chance to savour a political reputation transformed in the space of seven short weeks.
Such is the happy situation of Barack Obama. It is a situation that on November 3 would have been well-nigh unthinkable.
The previous day, Republicans had delivered their historic mid-term shellacking of the President and his Democrats, winning back the House by a landslide unmatched in more than half a century.
The comparison increasingly drawn by the pundits was with the single, unhappy term of Jimmy Carter; a few of them even wondered whether Obama would seek re-election in 2012.
But in little more than a month, the 'lame duck' achieved more than some previous Congresses delivered in their entire two-year span.
First, Obama reached a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone until the end of 2012. Then came the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' in a bill that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military without conditions.
Obama's only hope, the pundits had declared in the wake of the mid-terms, was to do what Bill Clinton did after he suffered a similar rout in 1994: move to the centre and compromise with the Republicans. In the event, Obama beat the original Democratic 'Comeback Kid' to the punch.
Many factors contributed to Obama's achievement, including the readiness of some departing Republicans to vote according to their consciences rather than the recommendation of their leaders and a report by the Pentagon that permitting gays into the military would not harm its effectiveness.
The most important ingredient, though, was Mr Obama himself, and his readiness to work with Republicans, even if that meant upsetting the liberal base of his party.
However stinging, the November defeat may have been a liberation. No longer must he work exclusively with - and be beholden to - a commanding Democratic majority on Capitol Hill.
A supremely pragmatic politician can now operate in a pragmatist's environment, where politics is the art of the possible and compromise the only path forward.
It won't be easy. From January, American politics will march to the drum of the 2012 Presidential contest. Priority number one of Congressional Republicans will be to deny Obama any success that might contribute to his re-election.
The party's new intake on Capitol Hill, moreover, contains a sizeable Tea Party contingent, for whom compromise is the dirtiest word in the political lexicon, committed to reducing the deficit and overturning healthcare reform.
At the same time, the mid-term defeat of many Democratic moderates has pushed the centre of gravity of the party Leftward.
In Congress, if not the country, the centre has shrunk almost to vanishing point, but that does not mean Obama has nothing to work with.
But if Tea Party purists resist a required increase in the debt ceiling, or refuse to approve the already delayed 2011 budget without massive spending cuts - both issues to be dealt with in the next few weeks - they may do precisely that.
In that case, we could see a repeat of the government shutdowns that proved a PR disaster for Newt Gingrich's Republican shock troops in 1995 and helped to ensure Mr Clinton's re-election the next year.
None of this, of course, means that Obama is already home and dry for 2012. His fortunes could plunge as quickly as they have risen.
But he has weathered the first great crisis of his Presidency. Hawaii must feel pretty good right now.