Don’t believe all the Washington talk that President Obama had a great lame-duck session and goes into the new year and the new 112th Congress with the whip hand. It’s utter nonsense.
Let’s review the lame-duck session as it happened - not as it has been instantly revised by the ever-obliging Washington press corp.
In the first week or so, the president capitulated to Ronald Reagan’s supply-side theory that tax cuts expand the economy and tax increases contract it. The central policy was not to let the George W. Bush tax cuts expire, not only because that would be tough on middle-class taxpayers but also, the White House argued, because keeping tax rates down would be good for the economy.
Even the great triangulator, Bill Clinton, never conceded this point. In 1993, he raised taxes by about $400 billion to manage the deficit. And, while the economy slowed briefly to a mere 1.9 percent growth of gross domestic product, the new dot-com technology business brought us the great economic expansion of the later 1990s, and thus Mr. Clinton never conceded to the supply-side theory.
Don’t think Mr. Obama merely took a week of embarrassment for that concession in December. We economic conservatives still are cheerfully reminding the public half a century later that President Kennedy endorsed supply-side marginal tax cuts. You can bet Republicans will be reminding the public decades from now that “even Barack Obama” agreed to supply-side tax-cut theory “way back in 2010.” This is a historical intellectual capitulation of the first order by the Democratic Party president.
After that political defeat, the president had to endure another weak week when his party leaders in the Senate tried to jam through a trillion-dollar spending bill with more than 6,000 earmarks. Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky held firm, and Tea Partiers across the country began to roar - and Mr. Obama’s allies quickly capitulated, with the White House agreeing to a short-term extension of spending, importantly leaving most of the 2011 spending in the hands of the incoming 112th Congress, not the infamous spendthrift 111th.
This was a second defeat for Mr. Obama and his party - which, please remember, continued to hold its huge majorities in both the House and the Senate.
The final week of the lame-duck session is the thin reed on which Mr. Obama’s supposed lame-duck success is constructed. He lost on his goal of passing the Dream Act - which was designed to appeal to Hispanic votes. However, he succeeded - on a bipartisan basis - in ending “don’t ask don’t tell (DADT) and getting the new START confirmed.
Passage of the DADT repeal was a legislative victory. But if - as most of our nonpoliticized senior military officers and about 60 percent of our combat-troop rank and file think - this new policy will reduce recruitment and re-upping at a time when combat-troop shortages are already hampering field success - there may be a long-term price for this short-term legislative success. If, on the other hand, no serious problems emerge, I don’t think the DADT repeal gives Mr. Obama any special political advantage in the out years.
Finally, New START was confirmed in the Senate with most Democratic senators and a large handful of Republicans. This is hardly a partisan triumph. Almost the entire Republican foreign-policy establishment supported it. Even the Republican senators who opposed its December passage were only holding out for some minor amendments on nuclear modernization and missile-defense authorization.
They got a promise from the president of $80 billion for nuclear modernization - which six months ago would have been called a GOP triumph - and still is.
They also got a letter from the White House saying that the treaty does not conflict with our right to develop missile defense - another triumph for the GOP from a White House that has shown little enthusiasm for our defensive technologies.
Only because the Republican Senate leaders unshrewdly did not take yes for an answer - and continued to oppose START - did the president get the appearance of a victory.
In fact , despite Mr. Obama’s belief that it is historically consequential, the confirmation of the New START is a minor foreign-policy matter. (Thirty years ago, during the Cold War, it would have been a central accomplishment.) The real nuclear threats today are from Iran and North Korea - on both fronts of which Mr. Obama is an utter failure, as was his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Despite the sobriquet “the Comeback Kid” given to Mr. Obama by the brilliant, normally politically spot-on conservative gentleman and columnist Charles Krauthammer, Mr. Obama has not come back.
Mr. Clinton gave himself that compliment after he came in second in the New Hampshire Democratic Party presidential primary just days after he and Hillary had appeared on “60 Minutes” to admit, in the face of the Gennifer Flowers illicit sex scandal, that their marriage had been rocky but would survive (which it famously has.). In Mr. Clinton’s case, he has come back politically.
In Mr. Obama’s case, he enters 2011 facing more than 80 new Republican members of Congress and senators, most of whom would make Barry Goldwater look soft on limited government and deficit spending.
On those central issues of 2011, Mr. Obama either capitulates or storms in defiance and gridlock. He has not come back from political crisis - he has only inflamed his formidable opposition across the country.
Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.