President Barack Obama, freed from the burden of further elections, is hoping to get things done
From normalizing relations with Cuba to pressing for immigration changes, Obama is active
The lame duck is loose. Little more than two years before the moment he stands next to his successor at the presidential inauguration of 2017, President Barack Obama is feeling unshackled from the constraints of eyeing the next election cycle after last month’s disastrous midterms for Democrats.
Simply put, top White House officials say, the President is on a mission to get stuff done.
From his dramatic decision to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba to his executive actions on immigration, Obama no longer has to worry about the hand-wringing of endangered Senate Democrats concerned with reelection.
“I think it’s absolutely true,” former White House press secretary and CNN political contributor Jay Carney said. “Having lost (the Senate), it does provide some liberation to him.”
The unbridled Obama even took the time to call in to a Massachusetts radio show to needle his friend, outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
The “fourth quarter” policy blitz that is underway at the West Wing is similar in some respects to the “bear is loose” image strategy the White House employed last summer. The looser and more active Obama appears, the more the public likes him, aides thought at the time.
Asked how he felt about being a “lame duck” at his post-midterm news conference, Obama said he planned to squeeze as much as he could into his final years in office.
“You know, if you look at the history of almost every President, those last two years, all kinds of stuff happens. In some cases, stuff that we couldn’t predict,” the President said.
Current White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama accomplished his goal of making 2014 a “year of action,” filled with executive orders carried out with the President’s “pen and phone.”
“There is a lot more that needs to get done and the President has a long list of things that he’s looking forward to tackling in the new year after a couple weeks with his family after the holidays,” Earnest told reporters at his final press briefing of 2014.
Privately, senior aides push back on the notion that Obama has adopted the newly frenetic pace solely because the midterms are behind him. The administration’s sanctions on Russia may only now be paying dividends but they were applied over a course of the last year. Re-establishing ties with Cuba, one official notes, was a long-term project that began 18 months ago.
“If Democrats had kept the Senate, Obama would still be doing this,” Carney said about Cuba.
But Carney said the transfer of the gavel of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee from current chairman Sen. Bob Menendez – a Democrat and fierce critic of Obama’s Cuba policy – to Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee may have helped somewhat.
“It’s more difficult when the chairman is your own party member,” Carney added.
Losing control of Congress to Republicans has pushed Obama into the late presidency “refuge” of foreign policy.
“He has an enormous capacity to act and that, I think, is what he is doing,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Wilson Center.
Case in point is the administration’s long-delayed but persistent hope to contain Iran’s nuclear program. A deadline for a deal with the Iranian government was pushed back again just weeks ago.
“He’s now in a position for a comprehensive agreement,” Miller said of post-midterm Obama.
Cuba is another matter. The unpredictability of the Castro brothers could create headaches for the Obama administration and, by extension, the Democrats heading into 2016.
“Hillary is going to have a hard time with this one,” Miller said.
But successes in foreign policy could easily translate into higher approval ratings. Witness the strides made by Ronald Reagan at the end of the Cold War. Reagan’s cry, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” still resonates today.
Obama’s standing in public opinion polls are situated nearly where Reagan’s popularity stood at the same point in his second term, according to Andrew Kohut, the founding director of the respected Pew Research Center.
“Indeed views of Obama are not any worse than were attitudes toward Ronald Reagan at about this time in his second term. Understanding the arc of a presidential popularity rating, especially one as varied as Obama’s, requires a longer perspective than a single midterm snapshot,” Andrew Kohut, Pew Research Center’s founding director wrote in a Politico op-ed.
Reagan was also buoyed by a rapidly expanding economy. As the Obama White House is finding, the economic picture is finally brightening after the worst recession since the Great Depression.
“The economy is doing well. It’s in a good place. It’s going to be in a better place,” Carney said.