President Barack Obama capped a crisis-strewn first two White House years this week flexing restored power at home and abroad after securing big wins from a supposedly “lame duck” Congress.
Obama won Senate ratification of a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, which he said sent a “powerful signal” to the world, and fulfilled a Democratic dream by signing a bill allowing gays to serve openly in the military.
On both issues, the president took on and beat fierce obstruction by Republicans just six weeks after his foes raised serious questions about his political viability after giving him a “shellacking” in mid-term elections.
“One thing I hope people have seen during this lame duck, I am persistent – if I believe in something strongly, I stay on it,” Obama said, in a warning to Republicans who will take over the House of Representatives and grow their Senate numbers next month.
Obama spoke after senators voted 71-26 to ratify a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), clearing the needed two-thirds majority for a pact the president had made a linchpin of efforts to “reset” relations with Moscow.
“This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades and it will make us safer and reduce our nuclear arsenals, along with Russia,” Obama said.
“This treaty will enhance our leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the peace of a world without them,” he added said hours after a group of Senate Republicans split with their leadership to back the deal.
Earlier, Obama signed a bill overturning the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise that prevented gays from serving openly in the military – in a sweeping reform of the military that activists compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“We are not a nation that says, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ We are a nation that says, ‘Out of many, we are one,'” Obama said.
“We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot.”
However, opponents of the repeal passed by Congress over the weekend said the move would harm unit cohesion at a time when US forces are embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ultimately denigrate US security.
The president appeared relaxed and almost liberated as he left for his annual Christmas and New Year holiday in Hawaii.
But he will return next year to a different Washington, with Republicans emboldened and his political prospects likely depending on a swift economic rebound, in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.
Obama sought to position himself as a driver of compromise before Republicans take over the House, saying his recent victories showed Washington was not “doomed to endless gridlock.”
And he clearly set the stage for 2012 – saying he believed the economy was now back on level ground, after he came into office in January 2009 with the task of staving off a second Great Depression.
“My singular focus over the next two years is not rescuing the economy from potential disaster, but rather jumpstarting the economy so that we actually start making a dent in the unemployment rate,” Obama said.
In addition to overturn the military’s gay ban and securing the START treaty, Obama also brokered a deal with Republicans to extend George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which he said would boost the sluggish economy.
Many analysts hailed it as another win for Obama, even though some of his liberal backers were furious that though the bill extended unemployment benefits, it gave massive tax relief to the richest Americans.
Conventional wisdom would have the “lame duck” session of the old Congress demonstrate Obama’s weakened hand, shorn of the power granted him by a sweeping and historic election win in 2008.
But the fact he piloted such consequential legislation into law, to add to his healthcare and financial reform triumphs this year, restored some lustre to his presidency.
“I think it’s fair to say that this has been the most productive post-election period we’ve had in decades,” Obama said.
“And it comes on the heels of the most productive two years that we’ve had in generations.”
The START treaty restricts Russia and the United States to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads each, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002, and 800 launchers and bombers.
The treaty, which must still be ratified by Russia’s parliament, would resume mutual on-the-ground inspections of nuclear facilities, which lapsed when the accord’s predecessor expired in December 2009.
Despite Obama’s signature, the change in the policy on gays serving in the military will not be enacted overnight.
Obama, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, must certify that lifting the ban on gays serving openly can be done without harming readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment.