With this weekend’s decisive Senate repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gay service members, can anyone seriously doubt Barack Obama’s patient willingness to play the long game? Or his remarkable success in doing so? In less than two years in office—often against the odds and the smart money’s predictions at any given moment—Obama has managed to achieve a landmark overhaul of the nation’s health insurance system; the most sweeping change in the financial regulatory system since the Great Depression; the stabilization of the domestic auto industry; and the repeal of a once well-intended policy that even the military itself had come to see as unnecessary and unfair.
So why isn’t his political standing higher?
Precisely because of the raft of legislative victories he’s achieved. Obama has pushed through large and complicated new government initiatives at a time of record-low public trust in government (and in institutions of any sort, for that matter), and he has suffered not because he hasn’t “done” anything but because he’s done so much—way, way too much in the eyes of his most conservative critics. With each victory, Obama’s opponents grow more frustrated, filling the airwaves and what passes for political discourse with fulminations about some supposed sin or another. Is it any wonder the guy is bleeding a bit? For his part, Obama resists the pugilistic impulse. To him, the merit of all these programs has been self-evident, and he has been the first to acknowledge that he has not always done all he could to explain them, sensibly and simply, to the American public.
But Obama is nowhere near so politically maladroit as his frustrated liberal supporters—or implacable right-wing opponents—like to claim. He proved as much, if nothing else, with his embrace of the one policy choice he surely loathed: his agreement to extend the Bush-era income tax cuts for wealthy people who don’t need and don’t deserve them. That broke one of the president’s signature campaign promises and enraged the Democratic base and many members of his own party in Congress. But it was a cool-eyed reflection of political reality: The midterm election results guaranteed that negotiations would only get tougher next month, and a delay in resolving the issue would have forced tax increases for virtually everyone on January 1—creating nothing but uncertainty for taxpayers and accountants alike. Obama saw no point in trying to score political debating points in an argument he knew he had no chance of winning.
Moreover, as The Washington Post’s conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer bitterly noted, Obama’s agreement to the tax deal amounted to a second economic stimulus measure—one that he could never otherwise have persuaded Congressional Republicans to support. Krauthammer denounced it as the “swindle of the year,” and suggested that only Democrats could possibly be self-defeating enough to reject it. In the end, of course, they did not.
The Obama White House is reportedly considering whether the president should hold one last pre-Christmas news conference before heading off to Hawaii for vacation. There wouldn’t seem to be any real downside to doing so. But I’ll wager that the part-time law professor in Obama is remembering the maxim Res ipsa loquitur. “The thing speaks for itself.” Ah, if just once it could.