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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Shoot. Me. Now.

Senator Barack Obama scribbled that note to an aide in a committee hearing. The rising star never liked listening to other people give speeches, which is what the Senate is about. The freshman from Illinois was restless to move up Pennsylvania Avenue already.

Three simple words may foretell how well Obama’s Supreme Court legacy ends. In the shocking wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, the president has a plum chance to leave his writing on history’s wall by changing the balance of the high Court. That chance seldom comes around. It’s the luck of the Irish that may have a curse on it in rough seas — with a bitter presidential maelstrom brewing.

Irony abounds, since only the Senate has the power to approve or deny Obama’s pick. The Southern-accented place once known as “The Plantation” often moved like molasses. It’s now a place he has to study all over again. That’s a problem in the Oval.

There’s no love lost between President Obama and the Senate. His personal — or impersonal — history with that proud body will come home to haunt him in filling the seat that belonged to arch conservative Scalia for 30 years. When he worked in the Capitol, Obama spent little time cultivating allies in the Senate. Instead, he was on a national best-selling book tour.

Sadly, this style earned antagonism from the Republican caucus, led by the crafty Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and indifference from many Democrats. Obama was too cool for their school. McConnell, who declared early his goal of making Obama a one-term president, is determined to deny Obama a hearing for his nomination, because he thinks he can. McConnell fights hard. He and his band of Republicans are Southern without the charm.

In younger days, Obama’s mentor was the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the master of reaching across to Republicans to pass laws. But even now, in his final year in office, Obama has no special pals in the Senate to shoot the breeze or talk strategy with. It’s no secret that he sees himself as the best strategist and speechwriter in Washington.

Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy were senators who belonged to the institution, which helped them get things done as president.

The hardheaded Senate Democratic Leader, Harry Reid, supported Obama in 2008, over another senator, Hillary Clinton, but has been coolly rebuffed over the years when he visits the Oval Office to give advice. Something that rubbed Reid the wrong way: Obama giving Republicans an extension of the Bush tax cuts. Too often on deals, the president seemed to be playing solo, as one does on a campaign. Governing, however, is usually a contact team sport.

Obama had best be prepared to do something he hates — old-fashioned politicking, turning on the charm he likes to save for large gatherings. Senators like to be cajoled and courted, appealed to for their help in saving the day. They like presidents to know the stories of their states. Horse-trading could happen over the phone — if President Bill Clinton was on the line. He knew House members, too.

That’s because politics is still sometimes measured in camaraderie, even in days of poisoned public dis-coarse. A major moment of meaning brings out the best and the worst in people. The contentious Clarence Thomas nomination back in November 1991 became a tragic circus under Senator Joe Biden’s gavel.

No matter whom he names as his nominee, Obama needs more than 50 votes in a Republican majority. No matter whom he names, it will be close to 50-50 if he can pick off a few Republicans, better team players than Democrats.

As the president takes on the gauntlet thrown down by McConnell — head on — Obama has right on his side. A confirmation hearing 10 months before he leaves office is plenty of time. Didn’t Thomas nab his seat (52-48) a year before his benefactor, President George H. W. Bush, faced voters?

In the Senate, Obama was seen as a showhorse, not a workhorse. This is his last chance to change that.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Creators.com.

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Photo: President Obama carries a binder containing material on potential Supreme Court nominees as he walks towards the residence of the White House in Washington in this February 19, 2016 file photo.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files