BY SUSAN ESTRICH
Was it only a month ago that the chattering class was writing off the president as being almost as thoroughly defeated as the lame duck Congress, as the failed leader who had lost his way, popularity plummeting, accomplishments vulnerable? Insiders worried about who was up next. How much worse could it get? Did he really want to be a one-term president? Any Republican could beat him, friend and foe asserted. [Well, maybe not any Republican, but almost any]. And then, like the weather in New England, everything changed.
In politics, the distance between idiot and genius, especially at the highest levels, can be measured in days.
In the past 30, this president has put in place a tax deal that also extends unemployment benefits – and made clear to House Democrats that they could like it or lump it. He pushed to a vote a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, signed into law the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and even got some judges confirmed. That’s just off the top of my head.
Even without Rahm, it turns out the president knows his way around tough negotiations and games of chicken, not only forging a compromise but landing himself squarely in the middle. “Triangulation” minus Dick Morris. He has been decisive, tough and confident. When House Democrats revolted, he stood up to them and told them what was what. The once unified Republican bloc splintered. He found the votes he needed. The issue that threatened the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency – gays in the military – was resolved with the stroke of a pen.
Who is this genius?
Who is this natural-born leader?
None other than last month’s beaten man. The man we would wish were president if only he weren’t.
Hillary has probably never been more popular. [Sometimes I wonder how she ever lost the nomination what with all the folks who now claim they were for her and were right, to boot. But then, I can remember when public opinion polls during Watergate showed that McGovern must have beaten Nixon.]
It’s easy to read the daily polls and see the entire public as a fickle lot constantly racing in one direction or another, radiating anger as they do. But the reality is that it’s mostly the middle that’s swinging, if and when they pay attention. And that middle – the group that either likes Obama no matter what he does or doesn’t like him, on the same terms – is mostly in the ideological middle, not to mention, by definition, nonpartisan.
So when the president acts in a nonpartisan way, when he forces a compromise that keeps the tax cuts for everyone and extends unemployment benefits for folks who really can’t find work [even if our grandkids will pay for it] and ends the bickering and backstabbing and intolerable paralysis, those folks are more likely to swing in his direction.
And when Republicans like Susan Collins are willing to be in the picture, when the aisle doesn’t bind, he gets points with people who are sick and tired of what mostly sounds, from a distance, like bickering bullies. And even if folks don’t see all of it themselves, all the chattering about the president being back on top shapes the coverage and ultimately tends to nudge them in that direction.
And so Barack Obama ends the year not vanquished but firmly at the head of the table, which isn’t bad for a guy who last month was taking heat from every direction.
He’s on his way up. Mark my words. He’s a genius – until, that is, the weather changes.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer