Rupert Cornwell: Merry Christmas for the President (believe it or not)

Out of America: After the mid-term rout, Obama looked down and out – but a run of successes has changed the game
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The Independent Online

Life at the "winter White House" on Paradise Point Plantation Estate – rental cost $3,500 (£2,270) per night– must be especially sweet right now. A spot of golf, a dip in the surf – and a chance to savour not just a Mai Tai cocktail as sunset falls on the Pacific ocean, but also a political reputation transformed in the space of seven short weeks.

Such is the happy situation of Barack Obama, as for the third successive year the President and his family celebrate Christmas at the idyllic resort of Kailua, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu where he spent much of his childhood. It is a situation that on 3 November would have been well nigh unthinkable.

The previous day, Republicans had delivered their historic mid-term "shellacking" of the President and his Democrats, winning back the House by a landslide unmatched in more than half a century. The next morning, Mr Obama gave a self-pitying press conference, blaming everyone but himself for the disaster.

Never had the headline in the satirical magazine The Onion after his 2008 election victory – "Black Man Given World's Worst Job" – seemed more apt. The prospect beckoned of a dreary pro forma session of the outgoing "lame duck" Congress before the rampant Republicans took back the driving seat on Capitol Hill.

The comparison increasingly drawn by the pundits was with the single unhappy term of Jimmy Carter; a few of them even wondered whether Mr Obama would seek re-election in 2012. A few weeks ago in this space, I too wrote of the "shrivelling Obama presidency". How wrong we were.

In little more than a month, the "lame duck" achieved more than some previous Congresses delivered in their entire two-year span. First Mr Obama reached a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone until the end of 2012. Then came the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", in a stand-alone bill that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military without conditions.

With little fanfare, Congress then passed a far-reaching food safety bill, before the Senate handed the President his most spectacular victory of all by ratifying the New Start treaty with Russia, which reduces both countries' nuclear arsenals – the first major arms control pact ever achieved by a Democratic President.

The votes that passed these measures took place on Capitol Hill, but the success belonged to Mr Obama. Republican senators were persuaded to defy their party leadership and support him. Suddenly the filibuster, the Republicans' most potent weapon to block legislation, had lost its teeth.

Mr Obama's only hope, the pundits had declared to a man in the wake of the mid-terms, was to do what Bill Clinton did after he suffered a similar rout in 1994: move to the centre and compromise with the Republicans. In the event, Mr Obama beat the original Democratic "Comeback Kid" to the punch.

The Clinton comeback did not really begin until April 1995, when he struck exactly the right note in leading a shocked country's response to the Oklahoma City bombing. Mr Obama needed barely six weeks to get going. Even the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer was moved to write in The Washington Post on Christmas Eve of his "triple crown" of the tax deal, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", and the Start ratification, calling it a "singular political achievement".

Many factors contributed to that achievement, including the readiness of some departing Republicans to vote according to their consciences rather than the recommendation of their leaders, a report by the Pentagon that permitting gays into the military would not harm its effectiveness, and the endorsement of New Start by every living Republican former secretary of state, from Henry Kissinger on.

The most important ingredient, though, was Mr Obama himself, and his readiness to work with Republicans, even if that meant upsetting the liberal base of his party. Not only has he followed the Clinton playbook. He is also doing what comes naturally.

However stinging, the November defeat may have been a liberation. No longer must he work exclusively with – and be beholden exclusively to – a commanding Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. A supremely pragmatic politician can now operate in a pragmatist's environment, where politics is the art of the possible, and compromise the only path forward.

It won't be easy. From January, American politics will march to the drum of the 2012 presidential contest. Priority number one of Congressional Republicans will be to deny Mr Obama any success that might contribute to his re-election. The party's new intake on Capitol Hill moreover contains a sizeable Tea Party contingent, for whom compromise is the dirtiest word in the political lexicon, committed to reducing the deficit and overturning health care reform

At the same time, the mid-term defeat of many Democratic moderates has pushed the centre of gravity of the party leftward. In Congress, if not the country, the centre has shrunk almost to vanishing point. But that does not mean Mr Obama has nothing to work with. Republicans in the new Congress may be pressed to maintain the unity they displayed in the last one. Many veterans are wary of the Tea Party, and determined not to make the mistake they made with Bill Clinton, of overplaying their hand.

But if Tea Party purists resist a required increase in the debt ceiling, or refuse to approve the already delayed 2011 budget without massive spending cuts – both issues to be dealt in the next few weeks – they may do precisely that. In that case we could see a repeat of the government shutdowns that proved a PR disaster for Newt Gingrich's Republican shock troops in 1995, and helped to ensure Mr Clinton's re-election the next year.

None of this, of course, means that Mr Obama is already home and dry for 2012. His approval rating is still below 50 per cent; his fortunes could plunge as quickly as they have risen. But he has weathered the first great crisis of his presidency. One way and another, Christmas in Hawaii should be pretty good.

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