Maureen Dowd: Lame duck Obama’s chickens come home to roost

US president has learned the hard way that you shouldn’t abandon your allies

On Saturday mornings, I love to watch reruns of the television Western The Rifleman. Each show is a little moral fable, with Chuck Connors's widowed rancher and crack shot Lucas McCain teaching his son, Mark, about actions and consequences.

If you neglect to do this now, you will pay a penalty later. If a corner is cut here, you will regret it there. The US president might want to catch some shows, as the lame duck’s chickens come home to roost.

At this pivotal moment for his legacy at home and abroad, his future reputation is mortgaged to past neglect. Like Prufrock, Obama must wonder if the moment of his greatness is flickering.

The president descended from the mountain for half an hour on Thursday evening, materialising at Nationals Park to schmooze with Democrats and Republicans at the annual congressional baseball game. It was the first time he had deigned to drop by, and the murmur went up, “Jeez. Now? Really?” Obama has always resented the idea that it mattered for him to charm and knead and whip and hug and horse-trade his way to legislative victories, to lubricate the levers of government with personal loyalty. But, once more, he learned the hard way: it matters.


His last-minute lobbying trips for his trade package to the ballpark – with a cooler of home-brewed beer from the White House – and to Capitol Hill on Friday morning to lecture Democrats about values reaped a raspberry from House Democrats.

The Democrats – even most of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Obama courted aggressively and which has been protective of him – showed their allegiance to themselves, their principles and their labour allies, and not to their aloof president.

A flustered Nancy Pelosi abruptly and stunningly deserted Obama in a floor speech, saying: "We want a better deal for America's workers." She has been loyal to the president. It was her high-heeled toe on the scale that helped a first-term senator scoot past the heavyweight Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Thought bubble

But you could almost see the thought bubble above her head as she spoke on Friday: “I’ve done a lot of heavy lifting for this guy and I’m not going to do this. He’s on his way out. I may be on my way out too but I want to keep my friends.”

The White House may yet find a way around this with another vote or a manoeuvre in the Senate. But this was a striking personal rejection, with the House Democrats – many still smarting more than 20 years after Bill Clinton successfully allied with Republicans to push through Nafta (the North American Free Trade Agreement) – proving their relevance at the president's expense.

The Obama White House has managed Congress poorly, with arrogance – or worse, neglect. Pelosi had to bail out Obama on healthcare after the Democrats lost Teddy Kennedy's seat to Scott Brown, with the White House once more being caught by surprise when it wasn't a surprise.

The president also showed his ineptness at vote-counting, working the system and leveraging when he got only 54 votes in the Senate for gun curbs that 90 per cent of Americans wanted.

Obama casts himself as the man alone in the arena, refusing to let Democrats on stage with him at key moments or even give them a lift in his limo. House Democrats resented the way he pushed so hard on trade when he hadn’t pushed for their priorities, like the highway Bill, and when he cut a big deal with the Republicans who have done everything in their power to undermine him. Some were angry, as congressman Peter DeFazio told Politico, that Obama had “tried to guilt people and impugn their integrity”.

The attitude of many was “Okay, go have fun with your Republican friends.”

As he was stymied from pivoting to Asia on trade, he was stymied from fleeing the Middle East to focus on China. Because he was elected partly on his promise to pull American troops from Iraq, he had a distaste for unravelling the Gordian knot tied by George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (despite Rummy's attempts last week to weasel out of it). So Obama failed to keep his foot on the throat of our Shia puppets, who balked at leaving an American troop presence there, with immunity, and who treated the Sunnis badly to punish them for the decades when Saddam treated the Shia badly.

Exposed and unprotected

Many Sunnis, including Saddam's former fighters put out of work by the American viceroy Paul Bremer, felt exposed and unprotected and joined up with al-Qaeda and Islamic State. As the French ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, put it to me recently: "Why would a Sunni soldier want to die fighting Sunnis to defend a Shiite government?"

President Obama has vowed to degrade, destroy and defeat Islamic State, but it seems more like delay, so it won’t look as though he lost Iraq on his watch. He’s putting a bandage on the virulent gash, sending American advisers to work with Iraqi troops and tribesmen in “lily pad” bases near the front lines.

It appears to be a sad, symbolic move by a country and president fed up with endless war and at its wit’s end about how to combat the most murderous terrorists on the face of the earth. If we drowned in quicksand going full-bore for a dozen years beside Iraqi soldiers who did not want to fight, what good will 450 more American trainers do?

A lame duck sending sitting ducks to lily pads is not a pretty sight. – (New York Times service)