What happened? One answer, I would submit, is that the president and his team found a better approach to governing: Instead of relying on the Democratic caucus in each chamber to deliver, they built up coalitions of their own that swayed public opinion in their direction and gave them leverage in Congress.If you ask me, the best metaphor would be a newbie boxer, all bloodied and beat up in the corner after nine punishing rounds, coming out for the final round of the match and simply letting loose with a flurry of punches that takes his opponent completely by surprise and K.O.'s him before he knows what has happened. Nobody (least of all me) expected it, but it happened. The newbee wins the match and the chance to fight again.
On the extension of tax breaks -- along with several other tax breaks the president wanted -- the White House cut a deal with Sen. Mitch McConnell and other Republicans. Liberal Democrats naturally cried foul, but the White House-GOP coalition sent a persuasive signal to the public that this was a reasonable compromise. Polls showed the public coming down in favor, and as night follows day, Congress voted the compromise into law. (Contrast how quickly the public turned against the health care reform when it was a Democrats-only bill.)
On "don't ask, don't tell," and on START, the White House had a different, but equally formidable, coalition that helped to turn the tide in the president's direction. The fact that Bob Gates -- one of the most respected defense chiefs in history -- and the chair of the Joint Chiefs, along with the poll of service members, came out in favor of repealing DADT made a huge difference in swaying both public opinion and Congress.
START appeared all but dead until the president assembled a group of Republican heavyweights -- from George H.W. Bush and Kissinger to Baker and Shultz -- whose vocal support for the treaty reversed the momentum.
In each case, there were also Senate stalwarts -- Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins on DADT, John Kerry on START -- who delivered, too.
From my biased perspective, I also thought the president was more effective because he seemingly played these fights more from the background than the foreground. We heard about him each day making phone calls, bringing in votes, but we didn't see him so constantly at the podium. It worked!
The net result is that President Obama has regained his mojo much more quickly than anyone, including his closest advisers, might have imagined. Even Bill Clinton did not bounce back from his mid-term defeat so quickly.
Or to use a different sports metaphor, the lame duck session was like the Philadelphia Eagles comeback over the New York Giants last Sunday.
At first, like so many, I was really upset that Obama seemed to be giving in to the Republicans on the tax-cut deal. It appeared to be a fiscally irresponsible package as well (and still may be, ultimately), swelling the deficit as it does, as well as endangering Social Security with its 2% FICA tax cut.
But what seems to have happened was that this deal was the explosive that cleared the log jam from other pieces of legislation that needed a bipartisan approach. More centrist (or at least reasonable) Republicans began to break free from the prison cell of the Republican NO and became willing to vote for sensible, timely, centrist and popular legislation such as the repeal of DADT and the New Start treaty.
Any number of legislators should share the credit with Obama: Lieberman (of all people) on the DADT, John Kerry on the New Start treaty, and, though he's not a legislator, Jon Stewart on the 9/11 Health legislation (for having a dynamite interview with some 9/11 First Responders on his last show of the season on Thursday).
But I must admit that I share everyone's surprise and joy that the Senate was able to pass such a slew of needed and important legislation in the lame-duck session. And Obama certainly gets a good deal of the credit. It's a great Christmas gift to the nation from Washington!!