For Barack Obama and the Democrats, three tests in the last month of this year will cast the fate of both president and party. The first -- on the economy -- is largely decided, although we don’t yet know the outcome. To Obama’s left, critics argue he hasn’t done enough -- that is, spent enough -- to end the recession and boost job growth. To his right, the Republicans claim the opposite: that deficits are too high and that the nation ought to move swiftly to cut spending. The latter course would likely push the economy back to the brink, but the truth of the competing critiques is largely beside the point.
To push through major initiatives on climate control and energy, financial regulation, immigration and equal rights, Obama needs a gathering sense of confidence among Americans that the economy is on track. The December unemployment numbers, which will be reported in January, before the State of the Union message, won’t be vigorous enough to achieve that on their own; but they will be a signal of impending job creation or of persistent job losses in the coming months. If the prognosis is bleak, fearful Democrats will desert the Administration next year, and Republicans will dominate the midterm election and go on to block Obama at every turn in the following two years.
The President will probably propose more stimulus, in the guise of bigger outlays, even as he sounds the trumpet for deficit reduction over time. But it will take time for the effects of more spending to be felt -- likely more time than the months remaining before next summer, when voters will settle on the economic verdict they will deliver in November. December will also reveal whether Democrats in power, in both the White House and the Congress, are good for more than cleaning up Republican messes. The test, of course, is health reform. By now, enough Democrats have concluded they will pay a high electoral price if they don’t pass a bill. But they still have to navigate the perils of abortion, the public option, taxing the wealthy and offending interests like the insurance companies that contribute to many of their campaigns. As difficult as this is, the alternative -- bleakly envisioned in the Democratic cloakrooms of Capitol Hill -- is a "Mini-Me" rerun of the 1994 Gingrich counter-revolution. Democrats would probably keep control of the Congress, but many of their members, including Blue Dogs who slink away on health care, would be swept away at the polls.
The final stage of the health reform battle will require an all out effort from Obama himself. At stake is more than a landmark achievement and the president’s subsequent capacity to pursue change across the board. At stake is also his capacity to hold the Democratic Party together. The sights and sounds of liberal dissatisfaction abound -- in nightly commentaries on MSNBC, in last month’s 200,000-strong gay rights march in Washington, and across hundreds of different blogs. What modulates the protests, and contains the criticism, is not merely the president’s personal appeal, but a shared commitment to finally realizing health care as a right and not just a costly privilege.
Devotion to that cause has tempered the unease of the Democratic base, giving the White House leeway on decisions ranging from delayed action on global warming to "don’t ask, don’t tell" and the defenestration of White House Counsel Greg Craig, who was smeared for trying to keep the President’s pledge to close Guantanamo. If health reform falls short in December, however, not even White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will be able to bar the door. Like Congressional Democrats, the President can’t afford to lose this one (which is also another reason the bill is likely to pass).
By the Ides of December, Obama must answer a third critical test -- on Afghanistan. The process has sprung more leaks than a colander; most appear designed to force Obama into escalation while a few warn of an endless, perhaps futile, war, at a cost of $100 billion a year.
The proponents of escalation in Afghanistan now seem to be selling it as another Vietnam. Hopefully Obama, who is said to be asking tough questions, has disdained the preposterous revisionism that we were winning in Vietnam until a congressional stab in the back transformed victory into defeat. If Gen. McChrystal truly believes that fantasy, what can his recommendations be worth?
From the Bay of Pigs, John Kennedy learned to be wary of experts and generals. He disdained their reckless and bellicose advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis -- and it is tragedy that he didn’t live to reject it in Vietnam, as he told several associates he would after the 1964 election. Kennedy intended to wait until after the election because he understood the potential political backlash -- as Obama no doubt understands it now. But if Obama magnifies the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, he has to be satisfied that this war is winnable, at a reasonable price, within a reasonable time. Then he must persuade a skeptical American public. Otherwise, he must reject his generals request and manage the political risk.
The decision isn’t easy, in terms of policy or politics. But if Obama plunges ahead and the conflict still has no end in sight, the Republicans will simply shift their partisan attack to "Obama’s war." Inconceivable as it now seems, the President could also face a challenge for renomination from within a fractured Democratic Party. Worst of all, the cause of change at home could be consumed by the casualties and costs of conflict abroad.
The cold months have usually been good to Barack Obama -- from the freezing day of his announcement in Springfield, Ill., to the snowy caucuses of Iowa and on to the unusually temperate night of his soaring victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park. He prevailed then because he was calm, deliberate, unruffled by the pressure. What he faced then was a test of his politics. What he faces in the fateful month ahead is a test of his Presidency.
By the Ides of December, the die will be cast.