Apparently it takes an Arctic snap to wake up Washington. Or maybe it’s the realisation that 2013 is almost at an end and the record thus far has been, well, more or less pathetic. This Congress, by the way, is set to be the least productive of any in the past six decades. As of 1 December, 6,375 Bills had been introduced while just 56 had become law. Its most notable achievement of the year: closing down the federal government for two weeks in October. Bravo. As for lacunae, you might ask yourself whatever happened to the plans for immigration reform and new gun controls.
No wonder that Gallup is reporting an average approval rating for Congress for the year of just 14 per cent – the lowest in the polling organisation’s history. Meanwhile, the White House is still reeling from the botched roll-out of its healthcare reforms. If there was the equivalent of a Razzie for the year’s most atrocious website, Barack Obama would have it on his mantelpiece now alongside his Nobel Peace Prize trophy.
Yet with Advent has come a stirring. The majority Senate Democrats finally had the guts to change the rules on filibustering, the chamber on Tuesday managed to confirm Patricia Millett as a new judge on the powerful US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Now, several other previously stymied key Obama judicial appointees should similarly emerge from the twilight zone and get their promised posts.
And rejoice in the astounding news that the bipartisan panel convened after the fiscal debacle of October to agree a two-year budget framework, to spare the country any repeat shutdown melodramas at least for that period, has not only done a deal, but got there a full 72 hours before it absolutely had to. That’s not meant to happen. It is even looking as if Republicans are ready to fall in line behind the package to ensure quick passage by the full Congress.
The flurry in the White House is about personnel. Some recently have dared suggest that the Obamacare mess was a symptom of a wider problem for the president: that his inner circle had become too insular and was possibly peopled by dunderheads. A few among the party faithful – notably Robert Gibbs, his former spokesman and now a TV pundit – even demanded that he start firing some people. That, however, does not come easily to Mr Obama, which explains why the Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, is still employed. He is, however, moving to bring in some new blood. Well, new old blood.
The West Wing is hardly unfamiliar territory to John Podesta, the eagle-featured Democrat heavyweight whose appointment as new senior counsellor to Mr Obama first emerged on Monday. Nor are Mr Obama’s thought processes. He ran the then President-elect’s transition team at the end of 2008 and was White House Chief of Staff in the tumultuous second term of Bill Clinton.
After freeing himself from government, Mr Podesta founded the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank in Washington that gives intellectual heft to the Democratic Party and is a favourite forum for its leaders for delivering set-piece policy speeches. Within it, he also recently founded the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, conceived to address America’s income inequality crisis. There are slight signs in some polls that Mr Obama may be over the worst. Yet, the extent of the political pummelling dealt him by the healthcare fiasco can’t be overstated. That one poll showed his approval rating recovering from 41 per cent to 45 per cent was taken by the White House as good news. So advanced are his second-term blues some of his supporters have a hard job believing that his second-term inauguration was only at the start of this year.
Now they are praying that Mr Podesta has the muscle to turn things around. He did, after all, help save Mr Clinton’s skin during the whole Monica Lewinsky, impeachment trial humiliation. He is also an advocate of the President using his executive powers to circumvent Congress when necessary to get things done. In a 2010 report he co-authored, Mr Podesta said those powers are an “opportunity for the Obama administration to turn its focus away from a divided Congress and the unappetizing process of making legislative sausage.”
If shame has returned a modicum of sanity to Congress, then we should be glad, even if, with next year’s mid-term elections looming, it may not last. It will be Podesta’s job to make sure Mr Obama re-harnesses his magic to run his country in more convincing fashion than he has managed of late.