Friday, July 10, 2015

Lame Duck Amok (or, Barack Obama in Winter)

So President Obama is having a couple of pretty good months for a lame-duck President. Obamacare upheld, same-sex marriage legalized nationwide, and the Confederacy-lovers suddenly on the ropes. Things can change fast in national politics, and this post might seem completely wrong in six weeks, but right now, today, Obama's opposition seems about as hapless as they've ever been: unable to cope with events, usually on the defensive and mostly on the wrong foot. And yes, some of this is the usual ups-and-downs of partisan politics. But it's still remarkable that halfway through his second term, when most presidents are largely irrelevant, Obama seems to have stronger mojo than he's had in years.

Maybe it's luck. But maybe Obama's opponents have done this themselves. They have forced him to govern like a lame duck for years now, unable to get almost anything through Congress, so that he had to rely on executive action and the bully pulpit. Most presidents get reduced to using those tools around this point in their second term, and it takes most of them a while to adjust. But Obama has been practicing using his lame-duck toolkit since the 2010 elections; he is right in the middle of his comfort zone at exactly the point when most presidents get thrown out of theirs. In fact, being a lame duck has liberated him to use the bully pulpit more, to be more energetic and direct in his rhetoric. There are no more mid-term elections to worry about, no more swing districts to lose. Obama can just be Obama.

And to some degree, what we're seeing is the overreach of conservative opposition to Obama. Obama has not gone on the offensive; he hasn't had the muscle to do that, and it seems not to be his nature. Instead, the conservative right has largely chosen their own battlegrounds on which to fight Obama, and they're losing to him badly on those chosen grounds. They decided to make repealing Obamacare into a hopeless crusade, long after the point of realism, and they've lost. They made gay marriage a core issue, and lost completely. If the last Supreme Court term has been largely liberal in its decisions, it's because conservative activists overreached, proposing cases that they hoped would produce huge 5-4 wins but that instead turned into 5-4 and 6-3 losses. The conservative Supreme Court Bar has kept swinging for the fences, striking out, and giving the ball to the other side.

Barack Obama could not have started the Black Lives Matter movement. The First Black President could never have done that. And remember, back in 2010 people were publicly scolding Obama for even suggesting that maybe Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shouldn't have been arrested on his own front porch because a cop was annoyed at him. But over the last few years conservative media have chosen to actively champion a series of white men who killed unarmed black men, beginning with Fox News's attempt to lionize George Zimmerman: not just to defend him, but to hold him up as an actual hero. That has meant that increasingly, over the past few years, national media has covered shootings that previously got nothing more than a brief story in local papers. Young black men being shot by cops is not a new phenomenon. What's new is that young men being shot by cops get national press attention, which starts to make it clear just how often this goes on. This has become a national conversation because the conservative media chose it as an area of focus, because they chose the inalienable right to shoot a teenager with Skittles as their preferred cultural battleground. It gets Fox News's viewers excited, but it turns out that repeatedly advocating for killing unarmed youths is not a winning mainstream position. And now Black Lives Matter has a life of its own.

And, to be fair, Obama's success (at least for the moment) in his lame-duck phase may ultimately come down to something much simpler: discipline. At this point in their second terms, most two-term presidents have been wrestling with a major scandal. In July of 1987, the Iran-Contra hearings were already on TV every day. In July of 1999, Bill Clinton had survived impeachment and we all knew much too much about blue dresses, cigars, and the President's favorite sex acts. In July of 1975, Richard Nixon had already been replaced by Gerald Ford. The second half of most second terms have involved a lot of self-inflicted bleeding. And while the last two years of George W. Bush's presidency might not have had a signature scandal per se, an iconic American city got all but completely destroyed on his watch and he seemed neither equipped nor strongly inclined to deal with that. The debacle of Hurricane Katrina clearly destroyed the public's confidence in Bush's leadership, and he never got it back.

For all the chatter, almost since he was inaugurated, about "Obama's Katrina," he simply hasn't had one. There has been no disaster of that size, compounded by negligence, on Obama's watch. And despite the endless harping on possible scandals (Ben-ghhhhaaaazzziiii!) by the Republican base, none of them has seemed like much of a scandal outside the Republican base. Obama is partly helped by the fact that things that could and arguably should be scandals -- wiretapping foreign leaders, aggressive drone strikes without oversight -- are things that his predecessor began doing and that his opposition wants to intensify, not to stop.

That said, we're at the point where most second-term White Houses are plagued by scandal, a muckraker's paradise, but journalists are hell-bent on digging up dirt on Hillary Clinton instead. The Candidate of Hope never quite turned into that guy, but No Drama Obama has pretty much delivered what he promised: a disciplined White House with no major scandals and little serious self-inflicted damage. You can beat Barack Obama; we've seen it done. But you can't get Barack Obama to beat himself. And he's been more than willing to let his opponents knock themselves out.

cross-posted from (and comments welcome at) Dagblog

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