For a “lame duck” politician who's supposed to be licking his wounds after the Democratic Party's steep midterm losses, President Obama these days probably doesn't mind scanning the headlines each morning. Instead of confirming the slow motion demise so many in the pundit class had mapped out for him, the headlines paint a picture of a president, and a country, in many ways on the rebound:
That's probably more good news for Obama in one month than he had in the previous three combined.
And that selection of headlines doesn't cover news of the most recent smooth and efficient enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, the announcement of Obama's executive action to deal with the languishing issue of immigration, his high-profile endorsement of net neutrality, or the United States' landmark agreement with China to confront climate change.
As for Obama's approval rating, it has remained steady in recent months, just as it has for virtually all of 2014. But aren't lame ducks supposed to tumble after tough midterm defeats, the way President George W. Bush did right after the 2006 votes?
Meanwhile, the assumption that Republicans had boxed Obama in politically via their midterm momentum and would be able to bully him around (impeachment! A government shutdown!) hasn't yet come to fruition. To date, their main response to the immigration executive order that Obama issued has been for Republicans to cast a symbolic vote of disapproval. (i.e. Obama called their bluff.)
Already the bloom seems to be coming off the GOP's win. “According to the survey, 50 percent of Americans believe the GOP taking control of the House and the Senate next year will be bad for America,” CNN reported this week.
None of this is to say that Obama's surging or that paramount hurdles don't remain on the horizon. But some recent developments do undercut a widely held consensus in the Beltway press that Obama's presidency effectively ended with the midterms and that his tenure might be viewed as a failed one.
Right after the election, a November Economist editorial announced, “Mr. Obama cannot escape the humiliating verdict on his presidency.” Glimmers of hope after the midterms were no reason to think Obama had “somehow crawled out of the dark place that voters put him,” the Washington Post assured readers. (Post columnist Dana Milbank has recently tagged Obama as a hapless "bystander" who's "turning into George W. Bush.") And a McClatchy Newspapers headline declared, “President Obama Is Now Truly A Lame Duck.”
But as the facts on the ground now change, many in the press seem reluctant to drop its preferred script and adjust to the headlines that suggest Obama's second term is not shaping up to be the wreck so many pundits hinted it would be.
It's worth noting that during Bush's failed second term, which ended with his approval rating hovering around 20 percent, the same Beltway press did the opposite. Back then the press appeared overly anxious to proclaim a Bush comeback underway. Unlike Obama who's actually rebounding, the D.C. press often touted Bush's comeback, even though one never materialized.
At the time of the 2006 midterm elections, NBC's Chuck Todd predicted that “if Democrats get control of Congress, President Bush's approval rating will be over 50 percent by the Fourth of July next year.” Democrats did win the House and the Senate in 2006, but Todd's predication was off -- by 20 points. Bush was floundering with a 30 percent approval rating on Independence Day, 2007.
Todd was hardly alone. Earlier in 2005, Time got a quick jump on the Bush-is-back competition, announcing that the president had “found his voice” and that relieved White House aides “were smiling again” after a turbulent 2005. That year, according to the Gallup numbers, Bush's approval rating remained submerged, falling as low as 31 percent. When it briefly climbed to 40 percent, the Baltimore Sun quickly asked, “Is Bush The New Comeback Kid?”
Even when Bush's approval rating trended down again after the Republicans' 2006 midterm wipeout, pundits were back on the hunt for the elusive comeback. In early 2007, Washington Post columnist David Broder, the dean of the Beltway press corps, typed up the White House spin and claimed, “It may seem perverse to suggest that, at the very moment the House of Representatives is repudiating his policy in Iraq, President Bush is poised for a political comeback. But don't be astonished if that is the case.” Broder was sure, “Bush now shows signs of renewed energy and is regaining the initiative on several fronts.” Thirteen months later, Broder finally conceded the Bush comeback hadn't materialized. (In fact, the opposite had unfolded.)
The media's “comeback” double standard seems to reflect the misguided Beltway consensus that America's a center-right country, so of course it was only a matter of time before Bush regained his footing (he didn't) and that Obama would likely fade away during his second term (he hasn't).