“For his sake, I’m glad he was so happy back there. ‘Cause it’s going to be rough sledding for him when he gets back in January.”
That’s what a colleague of mine in the White House press corps said to me as we left the old Executive Office Building’s auditorium last night after President Obama’s last press conference of the year.
The president, of course, was happy. In the twilight days of the lame-duck session of Congress, he had an impressive string of victories: the 71-to-26 Senate vote earlier in the day to ratify the New START arms treaty, the previous vote to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on homosexuals in the military, and, of course, the tax bill that preserved the tax cuts of ’01 and ’03 while giving the White House some of what it wanted.
All told, no one could really fault my colleague Caren Bohan of Reuters who included in her opening question during the news conference whether Obama was ready to call himself by the old Bill Clinton nickname “Comeback Kid.”
That was last night. But will the president have the same string of luck with Congress that he has this past few weeks when he returns to a much-changed Congress in January? It’s highly unlikely.
When pundits and pols hail Barack Obama for his dealings with Congress since Nov. 2, they almost always fail to mention the obvious: This is a Congress that was heavily Democratic and will bear little resemblance to that which takes office in January — in which Republican numbers in the 100-member Senate grow from 42 to 47 and in which House Republicans gain 63 new seats to make their ranks in the House the largest since 1946.
In addition, the issues on which the president won victories during the lame duck session were those in which he was able to call on outside support removed from his administration to woo the few Republican votes he needed.
On “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, for example, the testimony of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the service chiefs clearly made it easier for a handful of Republican senators on the fence to give the White House the votes it needed. On securing votes for New START ratification, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly gave credit at briefings this week to past secretaries of state in Republican administrations and to Adm. Mullen and U.S. Marine Gen. and JCS Vice Chairman James “Hoss” Cartwright, both of whom were Bush appointees.
On issues such as passage of the DREAM Act (of which the president spoke passionately in his news conference in referring to children living in “the shadow of fear”) or in securing funding to carry out the health care reform act, the president will need a lot more Republican votes than the handful he needed (and got) to win on DADT repeal and New START. And he will need a lot more non-administration figures and officials of past Republican administration to talk to GOP lawmakers.
The failure of the omnibus appropriations bill this year means much of the funding the White House counted on for “Obamacare” won’t be there. The effort to secure this funding will be a defining moment in the relationship between the White House and the new Congress.
As he said goodbye to those of us who cover him and headed to Hawaii for Christmas, Barack Obama had a lot to be happy about. Whether he will be as happy at his next press conference next year remains to be seen.