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20 December 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:02am

Obama fightback begins with gay rights milestone

Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell takes the edge off Barack Obama’s capitulation over tax cuts.

By Felicity Spector

What a difference a week makes. Read this weekend’s papers, and you’d be tempted to think that Obama somehow got his groove back. After critics had queued up to bemoan his apparent surrender to the might of the GOP over tax cuts comes a slew of articles grudgingly admitting that he’s managed to pull off some significant achievements on the back of his much-maligned deal.

As bill after bill charges its way through the lame-duck session of Congress, before weary politicians can start their Christmas break, there came a landmark achievement for gay rights: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is no more.

It’s the culmination of a 17-year struggle to repeal the controversial policy – and, as Obama signed it into law this weekend, he declared that thousands of people would no longer “be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love”.

The repeal had been all but written off, until eight Republican senators crossed the floor to ensure the bill was passed by 65 votes to 31, well above the two-thirds majority needed. As the result was announced, the Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Harry Reid hugged each other, practically in tears.

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The top White House adviser Valerie Jarrett spoke for many as she described it as a “historic moment”.

It’s undoubtedly a huge boost for the Obama administration, in the last few days before the Democrats lose control over the House of Representatives and see their power in the Senate much reduced. It’s had pundits like Mike Allen of Politico talking about the “Houdini president” – and remarking that the press is now talking about Obama’s “tax cuts for the rich” compromise as “an act of sacrificial statesmanship”.

Some are even callbing Obama “the Comeback Kid”. But Allen also quotes an email from an aide to GOP leaders, by way of caution – “In 18 days, there will be a Republican Speaker of the House and an ascendant Republican leader in the Senate, and you’ll see a different world.”

And the White House hasn’t managed to pilot all the bills it wants through the lame-duck session. The hopes of immigration activists were shattered last week when the DREAM act was in effect killed off, ending its last chance of becoming law before the 2012 election. The bill would have helped many immigrants, brought to America illegally as children, allowing them to become US citizens. Although three Republicans crossed over to support the bill, five Democrats voted against it – denying it the majority it needed to break a filibuster in the Senate.

President Obama said he still intended to push for the bill during his next two years in office, calling the vote “incredibly disappointing”. But there’s some bad news for progressives: many Republicans are intent on bringing in even tougher immigration enforcement laws in the next two years.

So, it’s been an up-and-down week for the White House: some wins, some losses, more compromises, more deals. Obama may have emerged with slightly more respect than before – but it’s all exhausting and frustrating stuff. Two more years of this, to paraphrase today’s Politico, would be more than just a drag.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.

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