President Obama left Washington on Friday having successfully sealed a political victory, after Republicans bowed to White House pressure to extend a two-month tax holiday.
The short-term tax cut extension, coupled with news of the latest upswing in polling numbers and a slight economic uptick, was an early Christmas present for Obama. It capped a tumultuous year for the administration full of bitter partisan wrangling amid a down economy.
Obama, who stood his ground in the heated political stalemate, appeared to be in a stronger position heading into his reelection year. His political win, observers point out, even seemed to overshadow a blow last week when the administration was forced to swallow a provision forcing the president to make a prompt decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
While during the debt-ceiling negotiations this summer Obama was criticized for wavering, this time around, “he staked out a clear position, stuck to his guns and prevailed,” Galston said.
“If you’re trying to portray yourself as a strong leader, these are excellent things to do,” Galston added. “And he did them all.”
Speaking to reporters on Friday before leaving for his Christmas vacation in Hawaii, the president did not take jabs at his opponents during his victory lap. He simply urged lawmakers to take up the payroll tax cut legislation in the new year “without drama.”
White House and Obama campaign aides were cautious on Friday when asked to assess the president’s successes in recent weeks. A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows the president's approval rating jumped five points to 49 percent. A CNN-ORC International poll showed the same result, with Obama appealing to Independent voters of late.
Aides, who are skeptical of polls, point to the recent economic news as proof that Obama's policies are working.
“What the past several months have crystallized is that not only is the president fighting to create jobs but fighting to restore economic security for the middle class,” an Obama campaign aide said.
“The president fought tooth and nail to provide the tax cuts for the middle class while Republicans were reluctant to even support it,” the aide added. “It was very clear who the president was fighting for and who the Republicans for fighting for.”
But even with Obama’s victories in recent weeks, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s well-positioned for his reelection bid in 2012, observers say.
“These immediate, short-term victories don’t change the overall playing field too drastically,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “I wouldn’t call it a game changer.”
“Unemployment is still much too high, the deficit is still high and who knows what will happen overseas,” he added.
Galston agreed with that assessment, saying the president’s reelection prospects are “at the mercy of the economy.”
“I think it’s important not to confuse this tactical victory with the larger picture,” he added. “He’s certainly still at risk in a number of swing states, all of which he carried in 2008.”
Obama also can’t always rely on his opponents’ weaknesses. “It doesn’t always win an election,” Zelizer said.
The president, he continued, would have to be “more engaging as a public figure” and less detached. “He needs to spell out what he’s for and against.”
In an interview with Barbara Walters that aired Friday evening, Obama disagreed with the perception that he is “detached, Spock-like, or very analytical.”
“The challenge for me is that in this job, I think a lot of times, the press or how you come off on TV, people want you to be very demonstrative in your emotions,” Obama said. “And if you’re not sort of showing it in a very theatrical way, then somehow it doesn’t translate over the screen.”
Looking ahead, in addition to revitalizing the economy in the new year, Obama will also have to contend with the Keystone issue, Supreme Court arguments on the constitutionality of his historic healthcare overhaul, and a GOP nominee who will be watching his every move and hurling attacks at his policies.
“He’s going to have a tough year,” Zelizer said.