President Obama, Democrats, and the reliably complaisant media have declared the lame duck session of Congress a triumph for the beleaguered president. Yes, he did better than expected. But mainly he was just plain lucky.
Credit him with playing a significant role in gaining Senate confirmation of the arms control treaty with Russia, the so-called New START. And Congress also repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the U.S. policy for keeping gays out of the military. However, passage of both, either now or in the next session of Congress, was inevitable.
Neither issue was a huge deal. The Cold War having been won (by us), an arms treaty with Russia is of minimal significance today. The Russians aren’t friendly, but they’re not an enemy who might launch a nuclear assault on the United States either. True, the treaty’s preamble includes an implied Russian threat to pull out of the agreement if the Pentagon enhances our missile defenses. But the Russians can already withdraw from the pact at any time, for any reason, as the United States did a decade ago in abrogating the ABM treaty.
And unless there’s a massive surge of gays to enlist in the armed forces, creating an awkward situation, the new policy won’t make much of a difference. It was ill-advised to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in wartime, but hardly a catastrophe. I suspect the military can handle the whole thing adequately.
Now, the luck. Obama was eager to pass a tax increase for high earners. But it turned out that while passage in the House was a cinch, the tax hike couldn’t get through the Senate. But what if it had passed and he’d signed it? The president seemed to be totally oblivious to the very bad economic consequences that would result. A strong recovery would have been further delayed if not doomed.
Did he think higher tax rates on the people most likely to invest and spur growth and job creation would have no ill effect? My guess is that’s exactly what he thought. And who in the world did he think was going to invest? Anyway, as luck would have it, Republicans did for Obama what he wouldn’t do for himself. The result: Obama’s economy -- escaped unharmed, maybe even boosted by the partial holiday on FICA taxes.
Obama was also on board for the bloated $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sprung on the lame duck session. That bill was so larded with earmarks and spending increases that Democrats seemed to be purposely thumbing their noses at the voters who went to the polls on November 2. Yet Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama was ready to sign it, his opposition to earmarks notwithstanding.
Once again, Republicans saved Obama from himself. If Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hadn’t brilliantly cajoled Republicans into united opposition, the president would have been stuck with the unpopular bill.
One more piece of luck was delivered by Republican senator John Kyl of Arizona. At Kyl’s insistence, the White House pledged to spend $84 billion to modernize America’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Kyl also forced Obama to promise, in writing, that he would support further improvement of missile defense.
Absent Kyl’s improvements, it’s doubtful many Republicans would have been willing to vote to ratify the treaty, preferring to wait until next year. Kyl wasn’t among them. He was merely Obama’s secret ally.
Let’s not be grudging. Obama was less partisan than usual and he got more from a lame duck Congress than presidents normally do. But, as the baseball saying goes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.