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Obama Marks ‘Season of Progress,’ But New Political Landscape Looms

December 22, 2010 at 2:50 PM EDT
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Assessing accomplishments in Congress' lame-duck session, President Obama said Wednesday the nation is not "doomed to endless gridlock." Gwen Ifill speaks with USA Today's Susan Page and Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center about what the lame-duck Congress has accomplished and what comes next.
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama marked two major victories today, as Congress wound down for the year. It was part of an end-of-year comeback for Mr. Obama and his agenda.

The president’s victory lap came during a late afternoon news conference…

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon.

GWEN IFILL: … shortly after the Senate ratified the New START nuclear treaty.

BARACK OBAMA: A lot of folks in this town predicted that, after the midterm elections, Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock. And instead, this has been a season of progress for the American people.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: The vote on this resolution are 71 yeas, 26 nays. Two-thirds of the Senate present having voted in the affirmative, the resolution of ratification is agreed to.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-Mass.), chairman, Foreign Relations Committee: This was a very, very important measure for the president in terms of his ability to move America’s agenda on a global basis.

GWEN IFILL: The White House pinned its hopes for the lame-duck session on extending Bush era tax cuts, repealing don’t ask, don’t tell, and ratifying START.

BARACK OBAMA: So, I think it’s fair to say that this has been the most productive post-election period we’ve had in decades. And it comes on the heels of the most productive two years that we’ve had in generations.

GWEN IFILL: Congress also passed a law overhauling the nation’s food safety laws and, today, a health care bill for 9/11 first-responders.

Hours earlier, the president used 15 pens to sign the bill allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

BARACK OBAMA: No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: The president also said his opposition to gay marriage is evolving.

BARACK OBAMA: With respect to the issue of whether gays and lesbians should be able to get married, I have spoken about this recently. As I have said, you know, my feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this.

I have friends, I have people who work for me who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions, and they are extraordinary people, and this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about.

At this point, what I have said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have. And I think — and I think that’s the right thing to do.

But I recognize that, from their perspective, it is not enough. And I think this is something that we’re going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward.

GWEN IFILL: All told, the day’s events completed an unlikely journey for a president who seemed to be reeling just seven weeks ago, when Democrats suffered heavy losses in the midterm elections.

BARACK OBAMA: I’m not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like they — like I did last night.

(LAUGHTER)

You know, I’m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons.

But I do think that, you know, this is a growth process and — and an evolution.

GWEN IFILL: There was one key setback, when the Senate refused to take up the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.

BARACK OBAMA: Maybe my biggest disappointment was this DREAM Act vote. You know, I get letters from kids all across the country, came here when they were 5, came here when they were 8. Their parents were undocumented.

The kids didn’t know. The kids are going to school, like any other American kid. They’re growing up. They’re playing football. They’re going to class. They’re dreaming about college.

And suddenly, they come to 18, 19 years old, and they realize, “Even though I feel American, I am an American, the law doesn’t recognize me as an American. I’m willing to serve my country. I’m willing to fight for this country. I want to go to college and better myself, and I’m at risk of deportation.”

And it is heartbreaking. That can’t be who we are.

One thing I hope people have seen during this lame duck, I am persistent. I am persistent. I — you know, if I believe in something strongly, I stay on it.

GWEN IFILL: But, for the president, there were mostly victories. In early December, he announced a landmark free trade deal between the U.S. and South Korea. Then, he met Senate Republicans halfway on the tax cut deal, sparking fierce opposition within his own party.

REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D-TX): We were told yesterday by the vice president this was a take-it-or-leave-it deal. We’re saying, leave it.

GWEN IFILL: All but dismissing his critics, the president said ideology should not always win the day.

BARACK OBAMA: People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama signed the tax cut into law last Friday.

Republicans who compromised on taxes were more resistant when it came to the START treaty.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.): I cannot imagine this president taking it to the limit with the Russians, because nothing he has done has convinced me that he is committed to missile defense.

GWEN IFILL: But, in the end, 13 Republicans joined the vote for ratification.

If anything, though, being criticized from both sides may be helping the president. A Gallup poll released last week showed 46 percent of Americans approve of his job performance. By contrast, Congress saw its lowest approval rating ever, at just 13 percent.

Still, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell issued a reminder today that the president should not read too much into his victories. Republicans, he said, will have strength in numbers in the next Congress.

Writing for “The National Review,” he said, “Americans are correct in thinking change has come to Washington.”

The president conceded today, there are battles to come.

BARACK OBAMA: If there’s any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it’s that we are not doomed to endless gridlock. 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.

And I’m not naive. I know there will be tough fights in the months ahead. But my hope heading into the new year is that we can continue to heed the message of the American people and hold to a spirit of common purpose in 2011 and beyond. And if we do that, I’m convinced that we will lift up our middle class, we will rebuild our economy, and we will make our contribution to America’s greatness.

GWEN IFILL: After meeting with reporters, the president headed for the airport for a long-delayed holiday vacation with his family in Hawaii.

For a broader look at the president’s reversal of fortune, we turn to Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

We just heard the president virtually declare the end of gridlock, Susan. Is that what we saw?

SUSAN PAGE, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today: I think we saw remarkable progress in December. The president had a bad November. He had a pretty good December, better than most of us expected.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean January is going to look better. It’s going to be a different political landscape when the new Congress comes in, in January. So, he should savor these moments of victory today.

GWEN IFILL: Of the three big victories — don’t ask, don’t tell, the tax cuts, and the START treaty — which would you say that the White House particularly says — needed the most, wanted the most?

SUSAN PAGE: You know, I think this vindicates the decision that they made to take the tax cut deal they could get quickly, and not stage the kind of public battle that a lot of liberal Democrats wanted them to have.

And that was to protect, I think, the START treaty — START treaty a big agenda item on the national security front, one that, if it got laid over to the next Congress, its prospects less certain in the new Senate.

Don’t ask, don’t tell also, though, an important victory, a big signal to the president’s base that he had delivered on an important promise he made to gay Americans.

GWEN IFILL: I remember when he used to get heckled at events, saying he wasn’t doing enough fast enough on that issue.

Andy, when you think — when you take a look at what American people have been demanding, what messages they were supposed to have sent during this election, how does what has happened since the midterm square with that?

ANDREW KOHUT, director, Pew Research Center: Well, I think the American public is going to be very surprised by what they have seen in December.

When we asked them after the election what did they want the president and the Republicans to do, they said compromise, get along, get some things down. Then we said, well, do you think that will happen? They said no. So…

GWEN IFILL: We said that, too, to be honest.

ANDREW KOHUT: They I think they are going to look very favorably upon this.

But you know what’s interesting about these three major pieces of legislation? And that is, there’s strong independent support for every one of these three. And the Republican opposition on gays in the military and even the START treaty isn’t all that substantial. The Republicans are divided on it.

We don’t have we don’t have issues here where the Republicans are way on one side and the Democrats are way on the other side. Republicans are less positive. Now, on the tax deal, we had liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans equally approving. Remarkable.

GWEN IFILL: Was that appealing to independents, to have the president alienate the most conservative members of the Republican Party on one side and the most liberal members of his own party on the other?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I don’t know about whether independents think that strategically. But I think what is important to them is that he got things done.

I mean, what we see in Obama’s image is a slip in he can get — he’s the kind of president who achieves things. And this will be very helpful to him with independents, who have been, were the Democrats’ biggest problem, among a number, in the last election.

GWEN IFILL: Yet we don’t want to overreach.

I wonder if it seems that the Republicans are as weak as they seem right at this moment or Democrats are as strong as they seem, or, even going back seven weeks, whether the Republicans were as strong as they seemed and the Democrats were as weak as they seemed.

SUSAN PAGE: Well, remember, the full impact of the election, the results of the elections, we didn’t see with these votes. We were seeing the old Congress act.

We’re going to have more than 100 new members of Congress come in, in January. Close to half of them were elected by affiliations with the Tea Party movement. They’re going to — they’re — they’re — and that is going to be a group that is very suspicious of compromise, elected on really hard-line positions on issues.

You know, one of the things that they did this — this last couple days that was a disappointment to the White House was the funding bill for the government that went only until March.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

SUSAN PAGE: You know, they had hoped to get one for a longer period of time. That means, in early March, this issue of spending, spending cuts, is going to come to a head in the Congress. And that is going to be a huge battle.

And that’s when you’re going to see the kind of talk about a government shutdown that became such a big issue after the 1994 midterms.

GWEN IFILL: Will the president’s allies on these key issues, especially allies in the other party, do — will they exist? Will they have any motivation in the new Congress?

SUSAN PAGE: You know, of the 13 Republicans who voted for ratification of the New START treaty, three of them are leaving Congress. Ten of those Republicans are going to still be there.

GWEN IFILL: John McCain wasn’t one of those Republicans.

SUSAN PAGE: Not one of them.

In fact — in fact, with the exception of Afghanistan, he has not supported the president on any major issue since the president beat him in the 2008 election.

GWEN IFILL: Which is significant, because he was actually talking to him about START there at the end, and it just didn’t pan out.

SUSAN PAGE: And because he’s been a leader on so many of these issues in the past. Now he is really at odds with the administration.

So, I think it is dangerous to say, because they were able to compromise here, you’re going to see more compromise in next year’s Congress. I think that’s a hard thing to predict as you look at the numbers now.

GWEN IFILL: We just heard the president talk this afternoon about gay marriage. And I wonder whether his evolution, as he describes it, of thinking about gay marriage, as opposed to gay unions, in the wake of don’t ask, don’t tell repeal, whether that’s supported at all by what the American people say they feel about the idea of gay unions.

ANDREW KOHUT: There is certainly support for civil unions among gays, and somewhat more support for gay marriage. But…

GWEN IFILL: You mean it’s grown.

ANDREW KOHUT: It’s grown. It’s grown somewhat. But we still don’t have a consensus or majority support for the idea of gay marriage.

Don’t ask, don’t tell is — is — was broadly popular. Gay marriage is not there. The dynamics of public opinion about these issues are very much the same. They’re based upon generation. But you don’t have the same — you don’t have the same kind of support for gay marriage that you had in this particular case.

GWEN IFILL: What about dynamics for things like tax cuts, where it’s a matter of whose ox is being gored? In the end, was he taking that much of a risk in pushing forward with this compromise with Republicans?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, was he taking that much of a risk?

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

ANDREW KOHUT: I don’t know. It doesn’t appear that way, because the Democrats — many — most of the Democrats said in response to this, this is good for me personally and it’s good for the economy.

They went onto say, we don’t think it’s good for the deficit. But the deficit concerns often get a lower priority, particularly among Democrats, than personal economic situation.

GWEN IFILL: Yet, the thing we heard the president talk about just now with — at some length, was about the DREAM Act and his disappointment that that didn’t pass.

In the end, considering the other things he was able to pull off, why didn’t — why did that one fall short?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think there was never a real prospect that the DREAM Act was going to pass. I mean, I think it was important to some Democrats that they make an effort.

Hispanics are such a key voting group in the United States, the fastest growing ethnic group that we have. But I think that was really a bridge too far. A lot of people didn’t think he’d get START, the 9/11 bill, don’t ask, don’t tell.

I mean, this is — we should — having just seen these victories, you shouldn’t underestimate what a big achievement this is. And just in weeks after taking what the president keeps calling a shellacking in the election, you remember, in 1994…

GWEN IFILL: He used the word again today.

SUSAN PAGE: He did.

In 1994, when President Clinton took a shellacking in that midterm election, it took him a long time to get — kind of find his sea legs again. We have seen this president respond very quickly to this new political dynamic.

GWEN IFILL: As we watch this new political dynamic, does this mean that — is there a lesson to be learned for Republicans, that they have to rethink their relationship, especially congressional Republicans, with the Obama White House? Or is there a lesson for the Obama White House; they have to rethink their relationship with congressional Republicans?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, they both have to be, especially the Republicans, very wary of their base.

In the poll that we did right after the election, we asked the Republicans, what do they want? Do they want their party to compromise and get things done with the president, or stand up to him? Eighty-six to six was the margin among Republicans.

Among Democrats…

GWEN IFILL: To stand up to the president.

ANDREW KOHUT: To stand up to the president.

Among Democrats, they were pretty evenly divided on this. The reason is, Republicans are more disproportionately conservative than Democrats are liberal. The Republican Party is a more politicized party than the Democratic Party. And Republicans will have some real issues if — on many issues, given this tendency.

GWEN IFILL: So, we will start all over again in January, folks.

Andy Kohut, Susan Page, thank you very much.

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.