You don’t have to like everything President Obama did in his first term – or anything he did, actually – to acknowledge he did a lot. He signed the largest stimulus bill in American history and the Affordable Care Act; ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden and ended George W. Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq, just to name a few accomplishments.
But he’s never had a month like this last one. In January alone, over the final three weeks of his first term, the president faced down three of the most toxic forces in American politics -- call them the three Ns: the National Rifle Association, Norquist (as in Grover) and the neocons – and won crucial battles, if not the war.
On Jan. 2 he signed a deal that raised top tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, winning the first GOP votes for a tax hike since 1990, despite their solemn vow otherwise to Norquist. On Jan. 7, he appointed former Sen. Chuck Hagel his Secretary of Defense despite once-fatal charges that he’s anti-Israel -- or worse, anti-Semitic -- from neocon bullies. On Jan. 16, he rallied the nation behind a gun control agenda and issued 23 “executive actions” that shouldn’t be controversial but are, thanks to the way the NRA has controlled gun politics in the last 20 years.
And after flatly refusing to negotiate over a debt-ceiling deal again, on Friday he won a big battle with House GOP dead-enders. The overmatched Republican leadership announced it would back lifting the ceiling for three months, and if they cave this time it’s hard to see them mounting a challenge in April.
A president who began his first term trying tirelessly to compromise with people who despise him completed it by finally standing up to them. It no doubt helped that in November he became the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win 51 percent of the vote twice. Just in January, Obama faced down menacing political forces other presidents have ducked or placated. As he takes the oath of office a second time (well, the fourth time, technically) on the nation's official holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it's hard not to be optimistic. If Obama keeps up his January pace, his second term will make even more history than his first.
Given the ugliness he’s faced in the last four years – talk of “Second Amendment remedies,” Congressional shouts of “You lie!” and the endless vicious birtherism -- sometimes it hurts to think about Obama’s first Inauguration Day in 2009, with all its bright promise. Malia and Sasha Obama dressed in coats the color of Easter eggs. Aretha Franklin’s majestic, now-iconic chapeau. The president tall and solemn in a black coat against the blue sky. In the joyous crowd of almost two million people, the frigid air turned each breath into bright steam, like little prayers or wishes made visible. I smiled so much my face hurt.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that same night top Republicans met to map out their strategy to kill that promise and block the president’s agenda. They settled on No, to everything, even ideas the party once backed. Rep. Paul Ryan was there. He had supported President Bush’s 2002 stimulus bill in grand Keynesian terms, exhorting members “to drop the demagoguery and to pass this bill to help us work together to get the American people back to work.” But even before the president could make his way a meeting with the House GOP caucus to discuss stimulus legislation – kind of amazingly, he excluded members of his own party – Ryan and the House GOP leadership had already come out against a bill that didn’t yet fully exist.
Obama had been in office only seven days.
It got worse. On Inauguration Eve, Glenn Beck had launched his new Fox show, a platform to comfort and rally Obama haters, handed to him by Richard Nixon's old henchman Roger Ailes. He would soon feature NRA president Wayne LaPierre, the guy who called federal agents “jack-booted thugs” after the deadly 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s federal office building, to warn that Obama planned to take away Americans’ guns. Then came three horrific killings: In April a Beck fan afraid of an Obama gun grab holed himself up with an arsenal and shot four Pittsburgh police officers dead. The next month anti-abortion zealot Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of his church in Wichita, Kansas. A few days later a white supremacist and Obama-hating birther attacked the Holocaust Museum, killing a security guard.
Only two months after that, the Tea Party turned the Congressional “town halls” traditionally held during August recess into “town hells,” in the proud words of Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who will go down in history as Mr. Legitimate Rape, but who should also be remembered for the way he applauded right-wing forces of intimidation that sometimes veered into violence. Across the country Akin’s Democratic House colleagues faced angry mobs and even death threats. In Tucson, Arizona, a Tea Party protester dropped a gun at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ “meet and greet” at a local Safeway.
A few months later, an anti-tax extremist flew his plane into an Austin Tex. IRS office. The next month, on the eve of the historic vote for the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, there was a new rash of violence: a brick through the window of Democratic Party headquarters in Wichita, Kansas, Dr. Tiller’s home, and a bullet through the glass front door of Giffords’ Tucson office. The Senate sergeant at arms reported that threats to members of Congress jumped 300 percent in the first months of 2010.
Ten months later, Giffords and eighteen others were shot at another of her Safeway gatherings; six people died. Although it turned out that Jared Laughner was mentally ill and had no right-wing extremist ties, it’s easy to understand why Giffords’ father, asked if his daughter had any enemies, answered tearfully, “Yes. The whole Tea Party.”
I took that detour into first-term intimidation and violence to highlight why it’s such a big deal that the president joined the battle against LaPierre in the last month, even if he doesn’t win it right away. The irrational, racist and occasionally dangerous forces of reaction triggered by Obama's election were inflamed by LaPierre and his allies. But they go back to our last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. His inauguration also unleashed a strain of crazy: in Congress, from the GOP’s government shutdown through its impeachment witch-hunt; and from the standoff at Waco to the terrorism of Oklahoma City, when LaPierre let loose his “jack-booted thugs” attack. An upsurge in the organization of armed militias under Clinton mysteriously paused during the Bush years, but started up again under Obama.
Let me be very clear: most conservatives who dislike the president’s health care bill, support deep budget cuts and oppose more gun regulation are horrified by this violent fringe. That includes most Tea Party supporters. Yet I’ve come to believe that ever-more-extreme far-right political nihilism combined with the threat and reality of violence has served to intimidate some Americans, including the media and even Democrats, into favoring compromise over confrontation, which has steadily moved the country to the right.
That’s why it’s also so important that the president refused to engage in another debt-ceiling hostage negotiation this time around. “Hostage” isn’t my word, by the way; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chortled that his Tea Party colleagues’ extremism proved the debt limit was “a hostage worth ransoming” when the 2011 standoff ended. Although Obama himself deserves some blame for opening negotiations with Republicans to achieve a legacy-sealing (and Social Security and Medicare cutting) “grand bargain,” he was forced to realize that he was dealing with people who would blow up the world economy to please their Tea Party base. That made it hard to take a no-concessions line in 2011. But he did this time, and he won.
That was after he took almost as tough a line on tax-rate hikes. As he did with LaPierre, Obama made the once feared Grover Norquist ridiculous. I’m not going to pretend to love all of Obama’s fiscal-cliff negotiating, authorizing Vice President Joe Biden to cut a deal with McConnell after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to budge. It would have been better to hold the line on tax cuts at $250,000 a year, and I still don’t like the fact that he endorsed the Social Security cut known as the chained CPI on “Meet the Press” with David Gregory.
But I have to admit that I was wrong when I predicted that despite his no-hostage-taking vow on the debt-ceiling, he’d wind up negotiating anyway, especially since the deadlines for “sequester” cuts imposed by the first debt-ceiling deal, plus a continuing resolution to keep the government open, all hit around the same time. He may well have to negotiate to avert those things, but he has way more leverage than when he was facing a debt-ceiling apocalypse. Letting Republicans shut down the government will backfire on them, as it did when they did it to Clinton. And sequester cuts to social programs would be devastating, but given the size of automatic cuts to defense programs, all political factions have more motive to negotiate.
Nominating Chuck Hagel is in the same category. It sends an important message to once-invincible neocon forces of reaction: You can’t immolate folks with charges that questioning Israel equals anti-Semitism anymore. The same folks who lied us into war with Iraq under Bush took over Mitt Romney’s foreign policy and tried for a restoration – and they failed. They thought they could torpedo Hagel’s nomination with the help of pro-Israel Democrats – and they were wrong (Unlike the debt-ceiling no-negotiation vow, I was right about that.) Barring some unknown scandal in his past, Hagel will be confirmed, despite his once-heretical skepticism about Israeli expansionism, war with Iran, a continued combat presence in Afghanistan and maintaining our “bloated” (his words) military budget. That's crucial.
In June of last year Obama mused to some donors that if he won re-election, “the fever may break” on the right, and Republicans might return to sanity. He was wrong, as the GOP's post-election posturing on the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, gun control and the possible Hagel nomination showed. So the president quickly realized that he’d have to do something to break the fever.
He hasn’t fully succeeded yet. There are many battles ahead. Yet I’m also encouraged by another Obama decision of the last month: to turn the president’s formidable re-election juggernaut, Obama for America, into Organizing for Action, to try to put the muscle of his supporters behind his agenda. There will be skirmishes about what he does with it, and if he unleashes David Plouffe to use the new OFA to back chained CPI and Medicare cuts, there will be hell to pay from progressives. But right now I’m optimistic that making the Obama coalition heard on the issues facing the nation – showing that we're the majority, and the NRA, Norquist and the neocons are a tiny if powerful minority – could have a big impact.
As an Obama supporter who’s nonetheless been a persistent critic of his cautious centrism, I’m thrilled by his new boldness. I have to ask myself if maybe he was right all along: whether he has only been able to rally the American people behind him on these issues because of his tireless efforts to compromise. We may never know. I will be thinking about that question in the months to come. I’d be happy to say I was wrong.
But we have to keep pushing anyway. I remember when Obama’s fiercest defenders once said he couldn’t afford to come out for gay marriage. Then he did, and not only did he win re-election, he moved public opinion toward supporting marriage equality. It’s possible the same thing may happen with gun control measures. Leaders ought to lead, and especially without a re-election battle before him, Obama has a chance to be politically fearless on issues he cares about.
The president is far from perfect, especially on issues of the ever-expanding national security state. When it comes to the widening drone war, his secret “kill list,” his continuance of Bush-Cheney “state secrets” claims and the five more years of warrantless wiretapping he sought and Congress provided, the country needs dissent and activism. Domestically, we need so much more attention to issues of poverty, and I have no doubt that being the first black president hampers what he feels he can do, even as I have no doubt that he cares deeply. I hope the president tosses away caution and spends his political capital on those who have none in this next term.
Still, I think about the possibility that Mitt Romney might have been standing up Monday at noon, reciting the oath of office. What a rollback of progress that would have heralded, on every level. So I’m thrilled and incredibly grateful that the president has another chance to get all of this right. He won’t finish the job – the job is never finished; it’s our job – but he can move us so much closer to where we ought to be.