Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
President Obama makes a point during his news conference Wednesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.
President Obama makes a point during his news conference Wednesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
President Obama used an upbeat, end-of the-year news conference Wednesday to hail the fading lame-duck session as a "season of progress" that surprised most who predicted that Congress would run out the session hamstrung by partisanship.
"If there's any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it's that we are not doomed to endless gridlock," Obama said. "We've shown in the wake of the November elections that we have the capacity not only to make progress but to make progress together."
The president, clearly relishing his Capitol Hill victories and improved standing with the public, touted his successes that came after the "shellacking" — his word — that Democrats took in November's midterm elections. The party's losses will translate into a GOP takeover of the House in January, and significant Republican gains in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Can It Continue Into 2011?
"I hope that everybody takes from this that it's possible for Democrats and Republicans to have principled disagreements — to have some lengthy arguments — but to ultimately find common ground to move the country forward," he said.
But the Congress he will face in January will be decidedly less Democratic, and less friendly to his agenda. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly suggested that Obama will find victories scarce in advance of the 2012 re-election campaign.
Obama's victories included passing tax cut and unemployment benefit extensions, repealing the military's ban on gay service members, and approving the nuclear weapons reduction treaty he negotiated with Russia.
He also pointed to bipartisan efforts that led to passage of a significant food safety law, and the nearly complete work on a measure that would provide health benefits to Sept. 11 first responders and other rescue workers who developed ailments as a result of exposure to toxic debris at the attack sites.
Shoring Up Support
All of the initiatives required Republican support in the Senate to overcome filibuster threats. And at least one, the extension of Bush-era tax cuts that including breaks for the wealthy, infuriated his base, which he acknowledged.
However, polls show that in these final weeks of the lame-duck session, Obama has shored up support among moderates and independents — and even some more liberal-minded Republicans, according to Gallup.
Yet the president said the closing days of the 111th Congress served up disappointments, too. He noted in particular that the Senate declined to pass a measure known as the DREAM Act, which would have provided the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship through college or the military.
"Classmates of our children," he said, are cast in a "shadow of fear through no fault of their own."
"And it is heartbreaking," Obama said, speaking with a passion he doesn't often show. "They didn't break a law. They were kids."
'Determined' On 'Immigration Reform'
The DREAM Act in recent days fell five votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a threatened GOP filibuster in the Senate. Some Republican senators, including Orrin Hatch of Utah, an original co-sponsor of the legislation, turned against the measure in a climate increasingly unfriendly to issues relating to illegal immigrants.
"I am determined and this administration is determined to get immigration reform done," Obama said. His comments came in response to a question about how he can keep that reform promise with Republican leaders insisting that the nation's borders must be secured before other reforms are contemplated.
Obama defended his administration's actions on the border, and against employers who hire illegal workers, as more aggressive than "any administration in recent years."
We are, he said, "a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. So I'm going to go back at it."
From 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' To Gay Marriage?
When pressed on whether he'd now advocate for same-sex marriage, given the military's repeal of its ban on gay service members, the president danced a bit.
He cited "friends" and "people who work for me" as examples of "powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions."
But his "baseline," he said, remains civil union laws that provide same-sex couples the protections and legal rights they would get as a married couple. "This is an issue that extends to all of our society, and I think we're all going to have a conversation about it," he said.
No Answers On Guantanamo Bay
The president responded cautiously to a question about fulfilling his campaign promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which holds many who were captured as suspected terrorists or enemies of the U.S., then harshly interrogated outside of typical civil law enforcement procedures.
He conceded that his administration faces challenges in deciding what to do with prisoners who would do the nation harm but who have been subject to tactics that make a case difficult to argue in federal or military courts. "How do we manage that" while living up to constitutional principles? he asked. It's a puzzle his administration has not yet figured out.
But the president defended his administration's efforts in going after al-Qaida. "They've hunkered down," he said, and have faced reduced financial and operation capacity.
And with that, the president — seemingly a much different president from the one who faced the American people the morning after his party's midterm drubbing — left for a 10-day vacation in Hawaii with his family.
He's not naive, he said, and doesn't expect all will go so well come January. Republican leaders have promised as much.
But, for Obama, a hearty serving of lame duck turned things around for his administration — at least for the holidays.