Michael Tomasky is a Special Correspondent for The Daily Beast and the Editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. His biography of Bill Clinton in the American Presidents Series will be published in January. (January 2017)
All these weeks later, and still the words “President-elect Trump” have not lost their power to shock, even when uttered in the narcotic tones of the hosts of National Public Radio. Soon enough, those of us who can bear it will watch as he speaks the words “I, Donald John …
We have seen much evidence that Trump’s false pronouncements are either believed or blithely ignored by a substantial chunk of the electorate. But we’ve seen no evidence that he’s persuaded a majority. His numbers against Clinton hold steadily in the low 40s and have for some time. The question, then, is what could raise them.
Each new outrage only confirms to his supporters that Trump is gleefully defying the establishment, and they love him for it. He lies daily, even hourly, and with complete impunity. The Trump movement clearly has some elements of the fascistic, at least in affect and tone. He evidently does not call for a one-party dictatorship; but he has been willing to approve of force against the opposition; and he has expressed “belligerent nationalism, racism, and militarism,” as one basic definition has it. Likewise, the kind of ardor he brings out in people is alarming.
Lately, Barack Obama doesn’t look like such a bad poker player. Roundly criticized for “negotiating with himself” before the Republicans even got to the table on the tax compromise—and for the Democrats’ abysmal showing in the midterm elections—the president can now claim a head-turning sequence of out-of-nowhere legislative victories: the long-sought repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, the approval of the New Start treaty with Russia, and, on Wednesday afternoon, a bill extending health coverage benefits for rescue workers and others who got sick in the 9/11 aftermath. Republicans had invested much time and energy in blocking all of them, and very few Democrats in Washington would have been willing to predict two weeks ago that any of these measures would pass.
Many reasons have been served up to explain the Democrats’ dismal withdrawal of the energy bill last week: the President was too reticent about fighting climate change; they failed to drum up sufficient public support; they let too many other things take precedence on the legislative agenda. But one reason towers above all others—the dysfunctionality of the Senate.
The speed and certainty with which the conventional wisdom in Washington flips can be a comical thing to watch. A mere forty-eight hours ago, Barack Obama was a struggling president, even a likely one-termer. Today, in the wake of the House’s narrow passage of the health-reform bill—which is to say, on the strength of a grand total of four votes, which if cast the other way would have ensured reform’s defeat—he’s suddenly once again a political mastermind and one of the most consequential presidents of the last half-century!
Thursday morning—Christmas Eve, that is, just after 7 a.m.—the United States Senate did something it’s never done and passed a bill that aims for broad reforms of America’s private health-insurers (it also delivers them 30 million new customers over the next decade, a bone of contention on the left). Potential snags exist, to be sure, but in all likelihood Barack Obama will become the first president, out of eight who’ve tried, to pass large-scale health reform. His presidency is either one-quarter or one-eighth over. Let us say, for argument’s sake (because the economy is starting to turn around; and because of the advantages of incumbency), that it is the latter. What have we learned in this first year that might tell us something about the next seven?