J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama, joined by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, signs the tax cut package into law on Dec. 17.
President Obama, joined by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, signs the tax cut package into law on Dec. 17. J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama has racked up major legislative victories in just a few weeks. His string of successes extends from passage of the most significant tax legislation this decade to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and now, it appears, the ratification of a new arms pact, the New START. And during a lame-duck session of Congress, no less, when traditionally nothing meaningful is done.
Polls show that as many people still disapprove of the job Obama is doing (48 percent) as approve of it, but that still represents an improvement for the president, for whom November's midterm "shellacking" represented a low point.
But polls also show people are more confident that Obama is leading the nation in the right direction and that he has regained ground among the all-important swing voters. Pundits say the president's compromises with Republicans have sparked a midterm comeback for him, a la President Clinton in 1995.
Come Jan. 5, Republicans take control of the House, and Washington changes — likely for the worse for the president. Does his furious deal-making with the GOP of late and cajoling of fellow Democrats put him in good stead for the stretch run to 2012?
Here's where the president stands with key groups:
Congressional Republicans: It's become clear that the president is staking his re-election hopes on convincing Americans that he's a committed (and principled) compromiser in chief with the Republicans. As of Jan. 5, he'll have no other choice.
"The president has had a mixed record of working with Republicans. But lately he's shown the capacity," said former Republican Senate aide Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Maybe we're seeing a trend going forward in listening to Republicans ... on issues where there's common ground."
Are the Republicans likewise committed? Well ... House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-OH) recently told CBS' 60 Minutes that "compromise" isn't the word he had in mind. "Finding common ground, I think, makes more sense," Boehner said. Meanwhile, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said his No. 1 goal over the next two years is to help Obama into a forced retirement.
"What's their incentive to compromise?" says Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "The Republicans were mainly elected to raise hell with Obama."
Sabato says Obama can succeed with Republicans only where Republicans decide that joining him at the table could net them a legislative victory that can help them in 2012, as with the tax cut negotiations.
Congressional Democrats: Appearing Monday on ABC's Good Morning America, New York's Charles Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, extended an olive branch to the president after publicly lambasting him earlier this month for agreeing to extend tax cuts for those who earn more than $1 million a year.
"We Democrats in the House and Senate know we're joined at the hip with the president," said Schumer, who has one of the closest working relationships with the White House of any Democratic lawmaker. "He does well, we do well."
But Schumer's conciliatory tone isn't much shared by Democrats in the House. Many of them aren't feeling an overwhelming desire to kiss and make up with Obama because they don't necessarily need him to get re-elected. The November elections purged the House of centrist Democrats; many of those who survived stand further to the left and have relatively safe seats.
Democratic Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says the president set a bad precedent in his approach to the tax negotiations that only will embolden Republicans when they take control of the House.
"This is a pattern we're going to see repeated," Grijalva said. House Democrats, he added, are made "to carry the day for the White House" and potentially strain their own bases of support, particularly among liberals. "The sacrifices we took for this president cost us the majority in the House. ... And we're not getting anything from [the White House] in return."
Liberals And Progressives Outside Congress: A recent Gallup Poll shows that Obama's job approval rating among liberal Democrats had begun to slip in November, following the midterm elections. And by the first week of December, after Obama announced the tax deal, his approval rating among liberal Democrats slipped under 80 percent for the first time (to 79 percent, specifically) — compared with 88 percent on Nov. 1, according to the survey.
"The White House continues to express surprise that the left is putting pressure on him to do more," Robert Borosage, president of the progressive Washington group Campaign for America's Future, said. "I'm always surprised that they are as resentful as they are."
Borosage says the left's support of Obama "has limits," such as on the extension of U.S. troop commitments in Afghanistan beyond 2011. The administration's review last week of the Afghanistan strategy indicated redeployment may be pushed as far back as 2014. "That," Borosage said, "would elicit a growing anti-war movement, and should."
One other sore point: Obama's decision to freeze salaries for federal employees. Critics on the left say Obama wrongly acted on a staple of Republicans' anti-government message, harming some 2 million workers across the nation and not simply Washington bureaucrats. They argue that putting extra money into federal workers' hands would have encouraged them to spend money and help stimulate the economy.
Looking toward the next session, liberals see another minefield in next year's budgeting process, for which congressional Republicans already have identified roughly $100 billion in proposed cuts in domestic spending. The left is watching for indications of how Obama might push back against GOP efforts to target funding for education, children, the poor, the environment and energy initiatives.
As for rumblings that Obama might face a primary challenge in 2012? Merely intraparty venting, liberals insist. Besides, Borosage says, "Once you face the right-wing assault coming from the new Congress, that will concentrate liberals."
Independent, I.E., Swing Voters: Truth is, most of Obama's swing voters from 2008 didn't leave him (or, really, the Democrats) in 2010. Are they disenchanted? Yes. Frustrated? Definitely. But they haven't entirely bailed. Exit polls and strategists from both parties indicate that the overwhelming majority of them stayed home on Election Day in November.
That's not to say Obama hasn't lost support among the middle-grounders. By any measure, he has. Which makes the positive public reaction to the tax deal all the more noteworthy.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released on Monday found that in the wake of the tax cut extension, the president's approval rating has ticked upward among moderates, 60 percent of whom told pollsters that they approved of Obama's job performance (up from 55 percent in November).
Among all respondents, 55 percent believed Obama's policies will move the nation in the right direction, while 44 percent think congressional Republicans' policies will do so. (Respondents were evenly divided, at 48 percent, about Obama's overall job performance.)
As for Obama's deal-making, polls have long suggested that independents want compromise. But really, Sabato says, independents care far more about results than about how Obama arrives at them, particularly where the economy is concerned.
"If the economy improves, a lot of this becomes back-burner stuff for political junkies," Sabato said. "That will help Obama, but it'll also help the Republicans, who will claim credit for the change in direction. And Americans will say, ‘We'll keep this [divided government] going. It's a good check and balance for both sides.' "