President Obama conveniently scheduled a trip to Asia immediately after this year's midterm elections. This has worked, so far, as designed -- it removed Obama from the political scene in Washington, while serious jockeying for position takes place among both major American political parties (leadership elections will be one of the first things the lame duck Congress will do when it reconvenes next week). This also has allowed Obama a pause to consider exactly what his next political steps are going to be, now that he faces two years of a politically-divided Congress (with Republicans in charge of the House, and Democrats still nominally in charge of the Senate).
Once Obama returns to the banks of the Potomac, however, he's going to have to chart a new way forward for his administration. And before he even considers what to do about the 112th Congress, he's going to have some more immediate choices to make. These initial choices will be Obama's first steps towards which way he's going to turn in his "midcourse correction." Obama will first have the opportunity to reshape his administration's makeup, and then he will have all sorts of opportunities over the next two months with the lame duck Congress.
President Obama may choose to immediately announce a shakeup of his team, after his Asia trip is over. The White House has already announced several prominent members of the administration will be leaving, or have already left (the timing of these announcements was unusual, in that this sort of thing normally happens after an election, not prior to one). But just because some folks are already headed out the White House door doesn't preclude Obama from easing others out as well.
Obama could choose to shake up his Cabinet, for instance. This is somewhat of a long shot, since there really is no Cabinet member currently who has drawn a lot of political heat for the job they've been doing (as there was with Donald Rumsfeld, for comparison). The only truly prominent member of the Cabinet -- Hillary Clinton -- seems happy enough as Secretary of State and seems to be doing a stellar job, so I don't see her immediate departure in the cards. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has indicated that he'll be leaving soon, which might allow Obama to name a successor soon, but Gates has been fairly non-controversial with the public, so doing so won't make much of a splash in the news. If I were Obama, I'd seriously consider Joe Sestak for the job, but realistically the chances of this happening are probably pretty slim.
Obama could also shake up his West Wing team significantly, but again, this wouldn't make a whole lot of news. It may change the tone of the White House and the Obama administration in big ways, but that's pretty inside-the-Beltway stuff. Much of Obama's economic team is either departing or has already departed, and this is going to be a huge opportunity for Obama to correct his course midway through his term. Whoever is named should not only be as qualified as possible, but should also have the proven ability to "get it" about what economic life is like out there in all of America beyond the Beltway (and beyond Wall Street, for that matter). One of the nominees to Obama's economic team should also have the ability to explain things to the public, in order to be the visible spokesperson for the White House on economic matters. Austan Goolsbee, Obama's new head of his economic advisors' council, already shows some promise in this area.
The really big news Obama could make in a West Wing shakeup, though, is who he names as his new chief of staff, to replace Rahm Emanuel. The White House Chief of Staff position is an extremely powerful one, and whoever sits in the office next to the Oval Office does more than anyone else in the president's administration to chart the course and set the tone of the presidency. Rahm's tone was, shall we say, unique -- and many are looking for a change for the better in the next person to hold this office. Of course, the Left's favorite suggestion would be none other than Howard Dean. But this, to be blunt, is not likely to happen. Dean has already been snubbed by Obama once, so it's hard to see the two of them getting along in the kind of relationship that is absolutely necessary for these two powerful positions.
There is another choice Obama could make here, which would create real enthusiasm among his Democratic base. Because, due to the recent election, Russ Feingold is looking for a job. Feingold is seen by the Democratic rank and file as a champion of the average American, and naming him to the highest appointed office in the West Wing would go a long way towards Obama proving that he really is interested in other opinions (and not merely an echo chamber of yes-men). Unlike with Dean, there would also be no hatchet to bury between the two -- or a very small hatchet, at worst. Feingold outraged many on the Left earlier this year by refusing to vote for the Wall Street reform bill in the Senate "because it didn't go far enough." Feingold was using the opportunity to paint himself as independent from the Democratic Party (he was, quite obviously, in a tough election fight), and to make a stand for strengthening the bill. Unfortunately for him, though, no other Democrat stood with him. Which meant that, to pass the bill, it had to be watered down even further to gain one more Republican vote. Feingold's whole "moral high road" position backfired on him, as the bill that passed was weaker than it would have been if he had just voted for it. Also, it didn't save him in his election, either.
But that's a relatively minor transgression, when held up against Feingold's entire record in office. Feingold has been a pretty consistent voice on the Left -- on pretty much any subject you choose. He knows Congress (a big requirement for the chief of staff job), and could be quite effective at changing the tone of the White House towards its own party. To be honest, though, the chances of Obama naming Feingold to the position are pretty slim. Obama doesn't even seem all that aware of the problems he faces with his base, and naming Feingold would be seen as a very bold move -- something Obama hasn't been exactly known for in staffing decisions. Instead, Obama will probably name some person nobody but the uber-wonky have ever heard of before. This could turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who it is, but politically (at least at first) it'll be a one-day story, soon to be forgotten.
Looking beyond the immediate possibilities of Obama shaking up his team, the lame duck Congress is going to present both opportunities and problems for Obama. I already examined some of these possibilities earlier this week, from the point of view of Congress. Obama, however, is going to have slightly different priorities. Much more than congressional Democrats, Obama is likely aware that this is the last chance he's going to get to push anything through Congress without Republicans dictating what he can and can't do. But while Democrats in Congress may wind up punting most of what they could get done in the next two months, Obama will also be punting a few things as well. His earlier commitment to withdrawing from Afghanistan next summer, if news reports can be believed, will likely be the first of these issues to get kicked down the road in one fashion or another.
In December, the deficit commission will issue its report, which will (in swift order) be resoundingly denounced from both sides of the aisle, and then quickly forgotten. This is due to the Republicans chickening out last year, it should be noted. Republicans had originally called for Congress to set up a deficit commission whose report would be voted on intact -- in a single up-or-down vote -- in both houses of Congress. When Obama decided to support the idea, Republicans immediately disavowed it. Which left Obama to set the thing up from the Executive Branch. Meaning the whole "vote on it intact" idea went right out the window. And the report, whatever it suggests, is going to have something in it for everyone to hate. Meaning it won't even be taken seriously by Congress, much less actually voted upon. The most likely outcome is that the blue-ribbon commission (like most other blue-ribbon commissions) is going to be seen as nothing more than a gigantic waste of time.
One thing Obama may push hard for is also not likely to make it through the Senate -- the nuclear arms reduction treaty he worked out with Russia. This is a pet project of the president, meaning he'll likely try to motivate the Senate to ratify it, but prospects at this point look pretty dim. He may have more luck with the incoming Senate, though, who knows?
The real questions about the lame duck session are: will Obama fight, and will Harry Reid deliver? Going on past performance, the answers to both of these questions seem somewhat dubious in nature (to put it politely). Obama could push hard for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," especially if the upcoming Pentagon report is favorable to his position, but then again either Obama or Reid (or Carl Levin, the committee chairman involved) could decide the fight's just not worth it at this point politically. This would destroy gay support for the president for years to come as a direct result (that's my guess, anyway). Likewise, if the DREAM Act isn't pushed through with the defense authorization bill, Latinos are going to be severely disappointed and disillusioned with both Obama and the Democratic Party. Of course, the big fight in the lame duck is going to be over the Bush tax cuts -- which I'll be discussing in more detail in the coming days.
Obama could play some politics during the lame duck, but probably won't. If Obama were so inclined, he could exacerbate the Tea Party's struggle with establishment Republicans right now -- by voicing strong support for ending all earmarks, for instance. This would indeed put the cat among the pigeons, so to speak. Earmarks are vilified routinely by some on the Right, far beyond their actual impact on the budget (more as a symbol than anything else). John McCain made a honking big deal out of them during his presidential campaign, and Obama signaled recently that he's largely against them as well. If Obama sided with the Tea Party faction of Republicans, it would cause all sorts of consternation within the already-growing Republican Party power struggle. But, as I said, Obama will likely not involve himself in this intra-Republican fray, because doing so would carry a certain amount of risk with it.
Will Democrats fight for much of anything in the lame duck? Will Obama be leading this fight? Well, probably not. The entire media and political chattering class is pushing Obama (and, by extension, the Democrats) to move to the "center" -- which is a polite way of saying "give the Republicans everything they want." Democrats could end the 111th Congress in a blaze of glory, passing everything they can convince Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to vote for -- or they can dither for weeks and largely sit the fight out. Not to be cynical, but Democrats would have to change their method of operation with lightning speed for the former to actually happen, which should really be seen as the longest of longshots at this point.
Since Obama's long-term strategy for dealing with Congress over the next two years won't really take shape until January (it will likely be unveiled at the State Of The Union speech to Congress), we'll have plenty of time to discuss it in the weeks to come. From watching the president on 60 Minutes, it seems likely that Obama's new strategy will likely consist of several "can't we all work together" issues, such as free trade. Obama, the eternal optimist, will come down hard on the theme of "bipartisanship" with a Republican Party who seems to be dedicated to overturning anything Obama's accomplished in the past two years.
But, as I said, we'll have lots of time to examine Obama's new course before he actually formally announces it next year. In the meantime, Obama has two short months remaining to convince the Senate to get something done to bolster his legacy. A West Wing or Cabinet shakeup would give the Washington punditry something to chew on right after he returns from the Far East, but the real question is whether the White House will show some leadership and push hard for much of anything during the lame duck Congress. Democrats as a whole are a pretty dispirited bunch right now, up to and including the president. They would have to overcome their shell-shocked inertia to actually produce legislation for the president to sign before New Year's Day. Whether that happens or not may depend on how committed Obama is to any of the issues which the lame duck Congress now faces. Obama, to be charitable, has not exactly been known up until now for "drawing lines in the sand" over particular pieces of legislation. But it would indeed behoove him to practice this skill a bit during the lame duck. Because not only could he probably use the practice, but this skill is likely to be what makes or breaks his presidency over the next two years.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant