It would be wrong to say that 2010 was a resounding success for Barack Obama. After all, the second year of his presidency ended with Guantanamo Bay still open, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy still in place, a record number of judicial nominations still stuck in the Senate and the war in Afghanistan still dragging on -- with signs pointing to an even longer stay for U.S. forces than Obama had been promising. Oh, and did I mention that private health insurance companies are now stronger than ever?
These are the realities that the president's critics on the left have in mind when they use terms like "sell-out" to describe him. But while 2010 provided plenty of reasons for Obama's allies to doubt him, the bigger story of the year was how much Obama was able to accomplish -- and how successful he was at keeping his core supporters on board.
Nothing better illustrated this than the last two months of the year, after Democrats suffered massive election losses (63 seats in the House, six in the Senate and a host of governorships and state legislatures, in case you've forgotten). The last Democratic president to withstand such a midterm drubbing, Bill Clinton, had no idea how to respond, and spent months searching for a way to redefine his presidency. But Obama barely skipped a beat. He acknowledged that the election had been a "shellacking," then enjoyed some of the most productive weeks of his presidency to date.
The key to this productivity was a compromise -- one that was reviled by many liberal commentators, some of whom had been ardent Obama supporters in 2008. With all 41 Republican senators vowing to form a filibuster-proof blockade on all Senate activity in the lame duck session until and unless the Bush tax cuts -- set to expire at year's end -- were extended for all taxpayers, the president opted to make a deal: Republicans would get their tax cut extension, but only if they would cough up what amounted to $300 billion in new stimulus money (in the form of a cut in the payroll tax, an extension of unemployment benefits, and a series of tax credits).
It was, of course, easy for commentators to portray this as a massive cave on the president's part. Doing away with the Bush era rates for the wealthiest was one of his main campaign promises in the 2008, and the growing divide between rich and poor -- and the alarming shrinkage of the middle class -- is regarded by many on the left as nothing short of a moral crisis. And yet, here was Obama, the man who aspired to be a transformational president, going back on his word and wasting tens of billions of dollars in public money on a giveaway to the rich.
But it was also quite possible for liberals to live with the deal. After all, Obama had also pledged as a candidate not to let the Bush cuts expire for every American who isn’t part of the wealthiest 2 percent; without cutting his deal, that pledge would have been broken. And the stimulus money that Obama wrested from the GOP was hardly insignificant. The stimulus enacted in the earliest days of the Obama presidency had clearly helped the economy, but it has also proved woefully inefficient -- in part because it was watered down at the insistence of the "centrist" senators whose support was pivotal to enacting it. From that moment on, the idea of passing a second major stimulus program -- no matter how badly it was needed -- was out of the question, at least as far as Capitol Hill was concerned. And yet, here was Obama, weeks after a truly devastating election, announcing that Republicans had agreed to support $300 billion in new stimulus money.
Thus, it's not surprising that the initial outrage of elite liberal opinion-shapers didn't trickle down to rank-and-file liberals. As the details of Obama's tax compromise spread, in fact, polls showed wide support for it -- even among Democrats, and even among self-identified liberal Democrats. Most liberals, it seems, didn't think that the president had sold them out at all.
There was even more reason for liberals to reach that conclusion as December wore on. By agreeing to terms with the GOP on taxes, Obama ratcheted up the pressure on the Senate's few moderate Republicans to break with their colleagues on several big ticket items. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Scott Brown had been willing hold up repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and ratification of the new START treaty when the tax issue was unresolved, but Obama's deal made it impossible for them to rationalize further obstruction on both issues. Within days of the tax deal's enactment, the military's ban on openly gay service members was history and the new Russian treaty was agreed to.
Here, too, Obama's long game came in to play: Liberals and gay rights advocates had railed throughout his presidency that he was willing only to pay lip service to the cause of DADT repeal. Actually, though, he was being wisely patient, winning over helpful support from military leaders by refusing to rely on an executive order or the courts and commissioning an exhaustive Pentagon study on the effects of repeal. That report's release, cleverly timed for the start of the lame duck session, utterly eviscerated every reasonable-seeming concern that opponents of DADT repeal had been touting. Combined with the tax cut deal, it made it utterly impossible for moderate Republicans like Brown to stand against repeal.
No modern president has seen his party lose as many seats in a midterm election as Obama did this year. And yet, no modern president enjoyed as productive a post-election congressional session as Obama just did. There are plenty of areas where his 2008 supporters can and should feel let down. And while the achievements of the lame duck session (and of his first two years as a whole) were significant, he also gambled by kicking the can down the road on some major issues, like funding for the government. But the last two months should give those who would cry "betrayal!" pause. Obama demonstrated in 2010 that he is still committed to doing much of what he set out to do -- and that he's still capable of accomplishing a lot of it.