The comeback kid?

    In his press briefing late yesterday, President Obama said: “A lot of folks in this town predicted that after the midterm elections, Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock. Instead, this has been a season of progress for the American people.”Here’s what he was really saying: “Remember six weeks ago, when everyone assumed I was toast? Well, now you can all kiss my derriere.”Yes, there was something a tad triumphalist about Obama’s tone and manner, but hey, maybe he had earned the right to savor what might prove to be a transient moment of success. He clearly finished a tough political season with a flurry of major wins; even Lindsey Graham, a former voice of Republican reason who like his pal John McCain has devolved into a bitter-ender, conceded as much this week when he lauded Obama and the Democratic team: “I admire good lawyering and good politicking, and they have done a heck of a job.”Six weeks ago, if anyone had predicted that a shellacked Obama would ring out the year by signing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal; by forging a deal with Republicans to extend jobless benefits and essentially pump $300 billion into the economy via a stealth stimulus plan; by signing a bill extending medical aid to 9/11 responders (Senate Republicans were finally shamed into saying Yes); by signing a bill strengthening federal oversight of food safety; by applauding the Senate’s bipartisan ratification of a new arms-reduction treaty…actually, nobody was nuts enough to float such a prediction. Not a soul in the land would have voiced such faith in the president. Except maybe Michelle.Larry Sabato, the national political analyst, is correct when he writes on Twitter: “Like it or not, this lame-duck session is the most productive of the 15 held since WWII.” Meanwhile, somewhat under the radar, Obama earlier this month also finalized a trade deal with South Korea that could boost U.S. exports and create tens of thousands of domestic jobs – the biggest trade deal since NAFTA in 1994. Even Obama arch-enemy Mitch McConnell lauded this deal as “a positive development.”And so, what’s the deal with Obama, as we near the cusp of the long ’12 presidential campaign? Has he suddenly earned the right to swipe the “comeback kid” moniker once coined by Bill Clinton? Or has he merely found temporary shelter from the storm?First, let’s freeze the frame: One hundred weeks into his presidency, Obama sits at 46 percent approval in the Gallup poll. That’s a tepid number, reflecting his weakness among independent swing voters (although the poll was conducted prior to the final legislative flurry). On the other hand, Obama is actually doing better than two previous presidents who got shellacked in midterm elections. In the Gallup surveys conducted in late 1994, Clinton’s job approval rating was 42 percent. In the surveys conducted in late 1982, Ronald Reagan’s rating was also 42 percent. Both those guys handily won their re-election races.Which doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that history will replicate itself. Reagan was able to ride a surging economic recovery; the anticipated recovery of 2011 figures to be far more modest in scope (or so the Republicans hope; their ’12 presidential prospects hinge on continued misery). As for Clinton, he wasn’t saddled with two wars during years three and four, nor was he burdened with a virtually double-digit jobless rate, nor did he have to contend with ongoing Republican attempts to wreck health care reform (since Hillary’s blueprint had already tanked).Obama in 2011 will have the wars and the economy on his plate. The satisfactions of December ’10 may soon fade. He’ll be dealing next year with a more recalcitrant Congress, populated by tea-party sympathizers who are thirsting to joust with him over government spending. Some of them might even be foolish enough to threaten a government shutdown rather than vote to raise the national debt ceiling. As Obama acknowledged yesterday (and this was quite an understatement), “There will be tough fights in the months ahead.”Obama-haters may well assume that he is politically DOA, but such a pronouncement would be woefully premature. The message of the midterms is that the voters (or, more precisely, the minority of Americans who voted) are looking for some checks and balances. They want the two sides to work together. They did not endorse a conservative mandate; as a post-election CNN/Opinion Research poll reported, only 17 percent of Americans viewed the election as a mandate for the GOP. Indeed, in a new CNN poll released Monday, 55 percent of Americans say that Obama’s proposed policies would move the nation in the right direction, with 42 percent saying otherwise; meanwhile, by a margin of 51 to 44 percent, Americans say that the GOP’s policies would move the nation in the wrong direction.So Obama has room to maneuver. His aim in ’11 is to position himself as the reasonable centrist who’s open to compromise (“Compromise,” he said yesterday, “means taking some things you don’t like”), and calling out the Republicans if they spurn compromise in favor of ideological obstruction. Obama may well fare better having John Boehner as a foil than Nancy Pelosi as an ally.      Indeed, he warned Republicans yesterday: “With greater power comes greater responsibility.”Here’s what he was really saying: “Screaming on the sidelines is easy. Governing is hard. And the voters will be watching.” ——-I’m off tomorrow, the start of a long holiday weekend. Have a great one. We Philadelphians already have Cliff Lee under the gift tree. I’m back here on Monday.

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