Poised for lame-duck victories spanning foreign, economic and social policy, President Obama is seeing a renewed sense of accomplishment after his first two years in office, which were filled with a brutal health care fight and crises ranging from financial meltdowns to environmental disasters.
Mr. Obama's recent high-profile successes in brokering a tax-cut compromise and pushing through repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members would seem to support a starkly different narrative than that put forth just weeks earlier after what he described as his party's "shellacking" at the polls in November.
"I think the president should be proud and satisfied with what he did these first two years," said Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of NDN, a progressive think tank. "The work isn't done, and he's got a lot of work to do to shore up his re-election, but he's in pretty good shape."
Together with his marquee overhaul of the nation's health care system, Mr. Obama managed to push Democrats on Capitol Hill to pass a rewrite of rules governing Wall Street, student loans and the $814 billion stimulus package that he and his advisers credit with blunting the recession. He also signed into law a children's health care bill, a so-called "credit card holder's bill of rights" and a measure aimed at ensuring equal pay for men and women.
On the global stage, Mr. Obama negotiated a new nuclear arms pact with Russia that seems primed for Senate ratification Wednesday, thanks to his lobbying efforts. He helped shepherd through a new round of sanctions against Iran and finally worked through sticking points that remained in the way of a free-trade deal with South Korea.
Mr. Obama's considerable list of accomplishments have come at a deep political cost, however. His disapproval ratings eclipsed his approval in July, and voters offered a stiff rebuttal of his party in November, giving control of the House to Republicans and expanding the GOP's strength in the Senate.
But it hasn't been his support only among independents and conservatives that has eroded. Mr. Obama has increasingly alienated his liberal base by failing to insist on a government-run option as part of the health care plan and through a series of other decisions, such as keeping intact Bush-era national security policies. More recently, he roiled liberal supporters by agreeing with Republicans to a temporary extension of all 2001 tax cuts, even for wealthier Americans, in exchange for an extension of unemployment benefits and other middle-class tax breaks.
But while the tax deal caused some heartburn among members of his party, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the caucus goes into next year with a "good relationship with the White House" and that it is normal to have tension among the branches of government.
"I think the Democrats in the House are committed to working with the president of the United States on the issues that we see as important," he said.
Mr. Hoyer said the crush of legislation during the last two years has been extraordinary.
"This has been I think an extraordinarily productive Congress," he told reporters. "It is certainly the most productive Congress in which I served."
Still, Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats failed on a number of big-ticket items, such as immigration and energy. Moderate Democrats were unwilling to back a comprehensive immigration overhaul, and the party waited until the lame-duck session to bring up a bill that would have laid out a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants. The legislation failed to muster enough votes in the Senate.
Mr. Obama has urged supporters not to give up hope - telling the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as recently as Tuesday that he will not give up on the Dream Act - but Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said the president shouldn't take another shot at contentious items he failed to get through under a Democratic Congress.
"It would be foolish to go into the legislative graveyard and try to resurrect issues like zombies, such as cap-and-trade, immigration and the Dream Act," Mr. Bonjean said. "The American people rejected those wholesale."
Instead, Mr. Bonjean said, Mr. Obama would be better served by focusing on spending cuts and deficit reduction - an area where the incoming GOP House majority has likewise pledged to make sweeping changes.
"It would be wise for him to try to get ahead of the curve and lay out some spending cuts in his State of the Union address and try to get the center back and try to co-opt the Republican message," he said.
For all the talk of congressional maneuvering, Mr. Obama's first two years also were defined a series of non-legislative events, including his decision to boost U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and botched attempted terrorist attacks on board an airplane and in Times Square.
This summer, the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dominated his time and the news. Mr. Obama took several trips to the region to oversee cleanup operations and to show the public that his administration was dealing with the disaster.
The oil spill hurt Mr. Obama's popularity, however, and lawmakers in the region have blamed tens of thousands of lost jobs on his subsequent moratorium on offshore drilling.
One area where the White House has touted success is Mr. Obama's achievements on transparency and the ongoing implementation of his call for government agencies to be more open. As part of a settlement with a watchdog group, the White House now posts visitor logs online, for example, and the administration is more frequently keeping his pledge to post legislation on its website for five days before Mr. Obama signs it into law.
However, some transparency advocates say the administration should be doing a better job to live up to the spirit of its transparency reforms, by being more responsive to information requests at the Justice Department in particular, and ensuring that information released under the open-government initiative is truly meaningful.
c Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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