President Barack Obama has a busy week scheduled, as Congress begins the lame duck session. Everyone in Washington has a few busy weeks ahead, until the 111th Congress wraps up business and heads off into the sunset, but President Obama will be at the center of this whirlwind. So it's worth taking a look at how the week is going to play out. To put it in football-watching terms, we're just returning from the "two-minute warning" commercial break, in the fourth quarter. And anything could happen.
Tonight, Congress may pass a few things which in normal times would be fairly unremarkable and likely passed by voice vote only, but in these partisan times may be fought tooth and nail by Republicans eager to deny any legislative victory to the president. The Senate is taking up the radical issue of insuring the safety of America's food, for instance. Listen for news from the Right that this is some sort of Socialist plot, I guess.
Tomorrow, two political issues are going to dominate the news. The first is the Republicans finally getting over their fear of sitting down with President Obama (this meeting was proposed much earlier after the midterm election, but the Republicans chickened out). The Republican congressional leadership will meet with the president, in what could turn out to be nothing more than posturing by both sides (in the hopes of winning the photo op contest), but could also be where some major deals get largely hashed out. First on the agenda is going to be the Bush tax cuts, obviously. But the likelihood of a deal being struck on this has to be seen as fairly low, at this point. At least on something so major. Possibly other minor deals may be announced, but my money's on nothing more than duelling photo ops.
This meeting, however, may be overshadowed in the political world by an even bigger story -- because tomorrow the Pentagon is due to release its long-anticipated report on how to transition away from the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy. The House has already passed a military appropriations bill (funding the Pentagon for the year, in other words) which contains repeal of DADT. The Senate is set to have two days of debates on the issue later in the week, and could even hold a vote before the weekend. The Pentagon's report has been widely leaked, and will be quite favorable to ending the policy, from all reports.
Republicans are going to do their best to throw up enough flak in an attempt to discredit the report, and the very notion of doing away with DADT. Democrats, loudly led by President Obama, could score a big political victory on this issue -- even if they lose the Senate vote. If Obama stands up and fights for every vote (and uses all the levers of influence with the Senate he possibly can), he's going to be fighting on the side of a large majority of Americans. His base will love it. Moderates will love it. And, in comparison, the Republicans will seem extreme in their viewpoint, and mean-spirited in their support of discrimination. Democrats, for the next two years, should push issues like this to the fore to entice Republicans into overreach, and this is the perfect time to begin.
The outcome in the Senate is uncertain. Joe Lieberman says he's got the 60 votes he needs to repeal DADT. Jon Kyl, on the other hand, swears that Republicans are going to stand firm against it and that they'll be able to filibuster it to death. All Democrats need is a few Republicans to cross the aisle, so this one may go down to the last vote on C-SPAN before anyone can call it.
Also facing a first-of-December deadline is the presidential debt commission's report. At this point, the prevailing inside-the-Beltway view is that nothing is going to be acceptable enough to both sides to garner the 14 (out of 18) votes necessary to issue the report. In other words, the entire exercise was either a gigantic waste of time, or (to be more charitable) a solid proof that American politicians are not going to solve our deficit and debt problem any time soon. See, the problem is that tough choices will have to be made. And our entire political system is now built to make such tough choices virtually impossible. Which means that, sooner or later, the International Monetary Fund may be the ones telling our Congress what austerity measures they have to pass in order to borrow any more money from the world -- but that's so far down the road that we, as Americans (and especially as American politicians) simply cannot focus on it.
In the meantime, more tax cuts for all! We're never going to raise any taxes ever again in this country! Woo hoo!
Sorry, but that's going to be about the upshot of the deficit commission announcing later this week that they could not come to any sort of agreement about what should be done to solve our fiscal problems. Call me a cynic on this one, but I don't see much of a result of the entire year the commission spent on the issue, unless you count the intangible "it raised the level of discussion about the issue in Washington" -- which, I have to say, I do not.
President Obama, in this instance, can't do much more than apologize for the lack of any bipartisanship at all in Washington, and hastily move on. These deficit battles (other than the Bush tax cuts) are going to be fought out in next year's Congress, not in the next few weeks. And even if the deficit commission does put forth some sort of vague document that can garner the necessary 14 votes, Congress is going to completely ignore it rather than waste time on tearing it to shreds (which, again, the next Congress can just as easily do).
Looming large this week is yet another unemployment benefits deadline, where millions of Americans will lose their only economic lifeline, which will be sacrificed on the altar of Republican intransigence. Democrats, it is rumored, are offering to trade Republican support for extending unemployment benefits for some sort of deal on massive tax breaks for millionaires. This could be a political advantage for Democrats, as it quite starkly points out the priorities of each party -- but that would require a concerted effort to get this message out. President Obama could lead on this issue, but likely won't until Congress has already worked out the details of the deal. Obama could generically lean on Republicans cutting off benefits right before Christmas in a big way, though; in order to sidestep the talk of such a deal and focus on the unemployment benefits extension itself -- but it remains to be seen whether Obama will take the opportunity to do so or not. This should be an easy issue for Obama (for any Democrat, really) to come out fighting for -- and Obama's going to need to hone such fighting skills to deal with the next Congress anyway.
The Obama administration may have some good news on unemployment to talk about at the end of the week. Because Friday is the day the unemployment numbers for the past month are going to be released. All throughout November, there have been good indications on this front, as new filings for unemployment have dropped to levels not seen in two years. But this doesn't always translate into a lower overall unemployment rate (which is the only number most Americans -- politicians included -- pay attention to), for various reasons. If the November unemployment rate stays the same (October's was 9.6 percent), or only moves a tenth of a point or so, then nobody's going to pay a whole lot of attention to it. But if the unemployment number goes sharply down (which I'd define as 9.3 percent or lower), this is going to be some long-anticipated good news for the economy as a whole -- and for Barack Obama in particular.
I picked that 9.3 percent figure somewhat arbitrarily, but also because once unemployment hits this level, it will be down a full percent from its high of 10.3 percent. Which is a pretty easy-to-understand political argument for Democrats to make -- things are improving, so let's not radically change things right now. This is the same argument Republicans have been making on the Bush tax cuts, essentially (an argument they're likely going to win, according to Washington conventional wisdom at this point) -- "don't rock the boat."
But it's going to be a very important message for Democrats in next year's Congress as well -- especially in the House. If the economy truly does pick up in a noticeable and sustained way over the next two months (before the new Congress really gets down to business), then it's going to be a lot easier for Democrats to defend what they managed to get passed in the 111th Congress, and to fight for their principles in the 112th.
At this point, we all could use some good news. And if it comes from an unexpected direction -- the economy brightening -- so much the better. No one could use this good news more than President Obama, either. He (and other Democrats) have had to be very careful in the past six months (for the entire election season, really) not to appear to be too rosy about the economy, in case voters decree that they're out of touch with reality. But if the numbers start getting better (and if the trend continues into the new year), it makes everything a lot easier politically for Obama and the Democrats. Because the next election is going to be fought over the economic progress in the next two years, and not the past two years.
President Obama has a lot on his plate right now (sorry for the gratuitous Thanksgiving metaphor, there), and a lot of it will have to be dealt with in the upcoming week. This week is going to set the tone for the entire lame duck session, really right up to the State Of The Union speech in late January. Obama's got some other issues to deal with as well, which are somewhat outside the world of day-to-day legislative politics -- such as responding to the Wikileaks document dump, and the upcoming yearly Afghanistan policy review. Congress also has some peripheral issues which are running up against deadlines -- such as passing the "doc fix" so Medicare providers don't get a large cut in payments, and a temporary spending bill so the government's checks don't start bouncing. The Medicare fix will likely be passed easily, but the temporary budget bill may shape up into a rousing fight.
President Obama will begin to deal with all of this pressing business tomorrow, when he meets with the congressional leadership. Before the election, Obama was showing some feistiness out on the campaign trail, in support of fellow Democrats. Was this all merely overheated campaign rhetoric? Or will Obama begin to show some of this feistiness when it comes to defending the issues, and standing up for what Democrats in Congress are fighting for? Will he, in other words, drive a hard bargain -- or give away the store? Personally, I'd love to hear the phrase: "I will veto any bill which..." be uttered by Obama in the next few weeks, pretty much no matter what the rest of the sentence contained.
This week Obama will begin setting the political tone not just for the next few weeks, but really for the next two years. In political-insider terms, this week will be the beginning of his "pivot," following the midterm election. There are some good issues for Obama to strongly defend and show real leadership on -- ones which, serendipitously, the American public also overwhelmingly supports. Obama could come out and push hard for the DADT repeal to pass the Senate. Likewise, he could take the lead on passing an unemployment benefit extension, and paint Republicans as the party of Scrooge for holding it up (once again), and preferring to play politics. He already has been leading on extending Bush tax cuts for the middle class, which he could continue to do in a much more forceful way as we get down to the deadline for the Senate to act.
Obama's already stuck his neck out on one issue in preparation for the lame duck, and he should continue to push hard to get the Senate to ratify the "New START" nuclear arms reduction treaty. It sounds like, from the Washington scuttlebutt, this would be a lot easier if Obama enlisted George H.W. Bush's support, which would be seen as the crown jewel in Obama's already-impressive efforts to get heavyweight Republican foreign policy figures on board (all the way back to Henry Kissinger). But even without Bush's support, Obama is right to show leadership on the issue -- even if he doesn't get the treaty ratified before the new year. Once again, the treaty is overwhelmingly supported by the general public, and the Senate Republicans will look like they're playing politics with America's foreign policy -- which is a politically dangerous position to find yourself in.
So there are plenty of issues for Obama to get out in front of right now. Some of these issues can be of his choosing, and some have been thrust upon him by the calendar. What he decides to lead on (and how this leadership manifests itself) is going to be crucially important to set the tone for the next two years. Obama's political reality is that he's going to have to pick his fights wisely from now on, and he's going to have to risk losing on some of these fights. What he might find out, though, is that by doing so he can actually become politically stronger. Because fighting for what you believe in -- even if you lose a few along the way -- is always more respected by the public than caving in on everything before the fight has even begun. The next week is going to begin to show whether President Obama is going to take this to heart or not.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
-- Chris Weigant