DANA MILBANK: Obama cautioned about too much celebration

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON – It took President Obama fewer than 50 days to go from shellacking to swashbuckling.
Seven weeks earlier, the president faced harsh questions about his leadership as he took responsibility for Democrats’ loss of the House in the previous day’s election. But the man who faced reporters Tuesday afternoon in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building was treated by his questioners as a conquering colossus – and Obama didn’t mind wearing those shoes.
“A lot of folks in this town predicted that, after the midterm elections, Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock,” he said to a roomful of people who had predicted just that. “And instead, this has been a season of progress for the American people.”
He bestowed superlatives on his accomplishments:
“The most productive post-election period we’ve had in decades.”
“The most productive two years that we’ve had in generations.”
“The most significant arms-control agreement in nearly two decades.”
“The biggest upgrade of America’s food-safety laws since the Great Depression.”
“Al-Qaeda is more hunkered down than they have been since the original invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.”
More! Most! Biggest! And when he wasn’t praising his accomplishments, he was praising himself: “One thing I hope people have seen during this lame-duck, I am persistent. I am persistent. You know, if I believe in something strongly, I stay on it.”
Careful, Mr. President. The humility forced on him by the Republicans’ triumph in November served to focus Obama, leading him to cut a tax deal with the GOP that infuriated fellow Democrats but made possible the string of legislative achievements he rightly boasted about on Tuesday.
His campaign-style event to sign the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal on Tuesday was held in the Interior Department auditorium to accommodate the huge and raucous crowd.
“You racked up a lot of wins in the last few weeks that a lot of people thought would be difficult to come by,” pointed out Reuters’ Caren Bohan, the leadoff questioner at the news conference. “Are you ready to call yourself the comeback kid?”
“It’s a victory for the American people,” came the cliched demurral.
And that was about as tough as the questioning got.
“Merry Christmas,” said ABC’s Jake Tapper.
“Merry Christmas,” Obama replied.
“Happy holidays,” said CNN’s Dan Lothian.
“Happy holidays,” Obama replied.
“Feliz navidad,” said CNN en Espanol’s Juan Carlos Lopez.
Even Fox News’ Mike Emanuel felt compelled to preface his question with a “Merry Christmas” – a wish Obama returned, in the spirit of the season.
The president, fresh from his successful triangulation of the Democrats in negotiating the tax deal, spoke as if he were an entity distinct from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Obama even looked better: The makeup was heavy, the lip injury faded, his blue tie coordinated with the curtains. He gave his questioners only half an hour – which turned out to be more than enough for the gentle lines of inquiry.
Lothian asked Obama to extend his campaign-season metaphor about Democrats pushing a car out of an economic ditch. “What kind of highway do you think it will be driving on in 2011?” the correspondent asked. “Who will really be behind the wheel?”
Obama, minutes from departure for his Hawaiian vacation, played along. “The car is on level ground,” he reported, adding automotive imagery about “a dent in the unemployment rate” and about how “the private sector is going to be the driving force” and the government “a catalyst.” A catalytic converter?
“The American people are driving,” Obama continued. “And both parties are going to be held accountable … if we take a wrong turn.”
Very clever, sir. But, for your own safety and that of your passengers, please park the celebration.

Dana Milbank’s e-mail address is danamilbank@washpost.com. He writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.