How a Lame-Duck President Skunked the GOP

How a Lame-Duck President Skunked the GOP
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Republicans won back control of Congress in the 2014 midterm elections, but the well-oiled and finely tuned Obama political and media management machine has run roughshod over them ever since. 

As a result, President Obama heads into his penultimate State of the Union address on Tuesday a much stronger lame duck than most expected. Obama’s job-approval numbers have been on an upward trajectory in the two-plus months since the elections, thanks in large part to an improving economy.

But more importantly, since suffering a resounding defeat in the election, he and his strategists decided to play offense--and forced the victorious GOP to play defense--by going around the country and making a string of populist and relatively popular proposals. They have received tons of positive media publicity outside the Washington Beltway, which is why he has taken the show on the road.  

Moreover, he knows that Republicans either philosophically oppose or have economic reservations about most of his initiatives. The president’s strategy is to force Republicans into sounding like bad guys who are always saying no. Obama can look good with various constituencies by contrasting himself to the naysayers.

Among the president’s proposals and actions:

-Sweeping reform of the immigration rules by executive order.

-A move toward normalizing relations with Cuba.

-Reaching a climate-change pact with China.

-Two free years of community college funded mostly by federal government.

-Expanded sick and family leave for workers and a higher minimum wage.

-Tax increases for the top earners and tax breaks for the middle class.

-Lower mortgage insurance premiums to make it easier to buy a home.

-Increased access to low-cost, high-speed broadband.

-New funding to train workers in cybersecurity.

-Setting aside $100 million to expand apprenticeships for workers.

-Tailoring some $750 million in new federal grants to support early learning for preschoolers, while easing rules to qualify for free school meals.

All of these initiatives are likely to be trumpeted in Tuesday’s speech in the House Chamber of the Capitol. It’s the one place where the U.S. president can appear annually in all his majesty as the center of the universe, with the Congress arrayed at his feet. For most Obama proposals, Democrats will cheer and applaud; Republicans will sit on their hands and look dour.

Meanwhile, what about the Republican majority in Congress, now in office a little more than two weeks? For the most part, all we have heard from them, or at least what the news media are covering, are their attempts to pass a Keystone XL pipeline bill which the president vows to veto and their concerted efforts to cut funding in the Homeland Security budget to thwart Obama’s executive action on immigration. He intends to veto that, too, if it passes, which is not likely.

Although Republicans are huffing and puffing to rally parts of their base, in the end they are likely to lose both battles, making the president the winner.

Then, there is the increasingly messy and dangerous area of foreign policy. For the better part of the past 10 days, we have been inundated with news coverage of the Islamic terrorist shootings in Paris and their aftermath. Except for a brief flap about Obama not attending a solidarity march there by world leaders after the shootings, the U.S. president has not been at the center of most of those news stories. He assigned much of that heavy lifting to others in his administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder. 

Even with the world seeming to be in chaos, the news media appear reluctant to clamor for the president to take a lead role. Republicans in Congress have been critical, but it is covered as just more partisan carping.

Not surprisingly, the conservative Fox News Channel has been the news outlet most critical of the president’s leadership on the terror front. But even Fox has become bogged down in a semantic debate on the president’s reluctance to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” preferring instead to label it “extremist terrorism.” Whatever you call it, the news media are not putting Obama at the center of the problem except when he comes out and chooses to address it. 

Thus, the president is left free to focus mostly on domestic issues such as the ones listed above, most of which yield much bigger political payoffs in the long run than fleeting successes in foreign affairs. He just has to keep his fingers crossed that we don’t suffer a terrorist attack here. Then, he can’t hide.

So we head into the 2015 State of the Union speech with the Republicans in charge of the Congress, but with the Democratic president still holding the upper hand. Why? Because he and his strategists know how to play political hardball and manage the media better than the Republicans do. It’s that simple.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter@benedettopress.

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