Political Animal


February 14, 2013 12:14 PM Why Is Obama More Cheerful?

By Ed Kilgore

E.J. Dionne nicely sums up a feeling broadly shared by many progressives that the president we heard in the 2013 State of the Union Address is standing on higher ground than at any time since his first election:

President Obama is a freer man than he has been at any point in his presidency. He is free from the need to save an economy close to collapse, from illusions that Republicans in Congress would work with him readily, from the threat of a rising tea party movement, and from the need to win re-election.
This sense of freedom gave his State of the Union address an energy, an ease and a specificity that were lacking in earlier speeches written with an eye toward immediate political needs.

That’s all true, but it’s very important everyone understand what burdens have not been lifted from Obama’s shoulders, starting with the most obvious: his freedom from “illusions” about the opposition does not add in any way to his power to overcome or persuade them in Congress. Yes, less talk about “bipartisanship” means less frustration among Democrats. Yes, sharper partisan differentiation by the president gradually (much more gradually than a lot of progressives seem to assume) reinforces negative public judgments about the GOP. But as a very practical matter, none of these factors amount to a hill of beans unless (1) something is done to reduce the power of the minority in the Senate, or (2) Republicans decide, for whatever reason, to change their ways.

Harry Reid has largely thrown away the first opportunity, at least for the next two years. And while congressional Republicans may yet decide to postpone big fiscal confrontations until after the midterm elections, they are showing few if any signs of repentance, and have little or no fear of a 2014 electoral landscape where they will have many advantages, or of a 2016 election that seems a million miles away.

If there’s a newer and freer attitude being projected by the president, there’s a very good possibility it’s because he knows the partisan gridlock that’s caused him so much grief will soon be somebody else’s problem.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Josef K on February 14, 2013 12:28 PM:

    But as a very practical matter, none of these factors amount to a hill of beans unless (1) something is done to reduce the power of the minority in the Senate, or (2) Republicans decide, for whatever reason, to change their ways.

    #1 might still have an avenue towards daylight, given Reid has stated he's not going to 'honor' the hold on Hegel's vote as SecDef. It could still get fillibustered, of course, but I'll take what glimmer of daylight I can find at this point.

    I'll further grant there's precious little chance Reid will willingly 'go nuclear' on the Senate rules, but then wasn't there always the cosensus there was precious little chance the minority party would fillibuster Cabinet nominees?

  • sjw on February 14, 2013 12:35 PM:

    Sorry, but I see another instance of Obama's weakness and naivete here: he should have leaned hard on Reid to change the filibuster rules. Now he's facing a second term in which he can get nothing accomplished, and this after a first term in which a good 50% of what he wanted to do got quashed.

  • Ron Byers on February 14, 2013 12:47 PM:

    sjw, any President who gets 50% of what he wants is doing great. The President's list of accomplishments is pretty good.

    That said you are generally right, any idiot could have seen that the President's task is made much harder by Reid's reluctance to modernize the filibuster in any significant way. I sometimes wonder if the Whitehouse has any clout with the Senior Senator from Nevada.

  • bobatkinson on February 14, 2013 1:18 PM:

    When Reid made this "gentleman's agreement" with the odious McConnell didn't he reserve the right to revisit filibuster reform at any time versus the "it's all over for the next two years" sad story one reads so much about? With the unprecedented filibuster of Senator Hagel as Sec. Def. looming there is a chance Senator Reid will use that overreach by his "friends on the other side of the aisle" as the tool he needs to overcome the resistance of the Dem Senators like Feinstein who objected to filibuster reform in January. You cannot tell people how incredibly insane the GOP has become with it's obstructionist tactics, they need to see it and filibustering Senator Hagel's confirmation as SecDef may be just the visual tool everyone who had reservations about reform before needed to see there is no deal making with men who do not have honorable intentions.

  • JMG on February 14, 2013 1:27 PM:

    It's all a matter of options. Obama has no option but to propose what he thinks are good ideas and campaign for them. Since there's no possibility of legislative compromise, he is freed up of many complexities. No wonder he's happier. And as he learned in the debt ceiling fight, his opposition blinks, too.

  • JackD on February 14, 2013 1:50 PM:

    There really isn't anything Reid can do now. They need 2/3 to change the rules unless they try the nuclear option. Senate Democrats won't do that. Reid's "foolish" handshake with McConnell was caused by the Feinsteins, Levins, and their ilk in the Democratic caucus.

  • LAC on February 14, 2013 2:48 PM:

    sjw, I think the weakness and naivety is on the "progressives" who sat out 2010 to "show Obama" because the sparkle ponies were stuck in lading. You reap what you sow. You got a whole bunch of asses in the legislature as a result.

    That the President has accomplished what has shows neither naiviety or weakness.

  • bdop4 on February 14, 2013 4:04 PM:

    "But as a very practical matter, none of these factors amount to a hill of beans unless (1) something is done to reduce the power of the minority in the Senate, or (2) Republicans decide, for whatever reason, to change their ways."

    or (3) Democrats aggressively take popular policy positions (min. wage increase, infrastructure/labor investment, etc.) and pin any failure squarely on republicans leading into the 2014 midterms, which bring majorities into both houses. If people start directly feeling the brunt of GOP-imposed austerity, even gerrymandering won't help them.

    Perhaps if Dems had been more aggressive post-2008, there would have been a better turnout in 2010.

  • Grumpy on February 14, 2013 4:44 PM:

    "All I have to worry about are the Klingons, the Dominion, and the Maquis. I feel like Iím on vacation."-- America's first black president, Ben Sisko

  • Doug on February 14, 2013 5:28 PM:

    bobatkinson, if I understand it correctly, Sen. Reid used the "nuclear option" early in October 2011, when McConnell failed to keep his word on an earlier occasion.
    That information came from an article I read on DKos a day or so after the latest "agreement" was reached. The author (I can't remember his name), pointed out the "good" parts of the latest agreement and added the fact that McConnell had better live up to his word or Reid could do again what he'd already done - go "nuclear".
    I don't know what exactly caused Reid to employ it in October of 2011, but when he did, he brought his entire caucus (51 senators) with him. Apparently they didn't like McConnell going back on his word either!
    As to Reid's "failure" to change the filibuster, the author placed it squarely where it belonged - the lack of enough votes. Seven of the Senators caucusing with the Democrats, one of whom was Reid himself, wouldn't support changing the filibuster AT THAT TIME. Even if Reid voted for changing the filibuster there still wouldn't have been enough votes.
    FWIW, it's my thought that the reason some people, Senators included, thought there WERE enough votes to change the filibuster is because Sen. Reid DOES have the votes to change the filibuster rules, but only if/when McConnell fails to keep his word.
    Looks as if that day may be fast approaching.