Obama Jumps From Midterm Drubbing to Checking Off Bucket List

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an announcement in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.

Photographer: Doug Mills/Pool via Bloomberg

In the six weeks since his party took a drubbing in the midterm elections, President Barack Obama has asserted the power of his office to check off the bucket list from his 2008 campaign.

The spree of action began with the surprise announcement in Beijing last month that the U.S. and China concluded an accord committing both countries to capping carbon emissions. That was followed by his decision to unilaterally grant protection from deportation to as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants.

Yesterday, he announced he’ll wipe away one of the most durable remnants of the Cold War, the half-century-long U.S. estrangement from Cuba.

“He’s using his executive power to the hilt,” said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I can’t think of a recent parallel.”

Each of the actions furthers the promise of fundamental change Obama made in his first presidential campaign. He also is looking ahead, toward securing the presidency for a Democratic successor in 2016. His actions place Republican lawmakers and potential 2016 presidential candidates in the position of defending party doctrine at odds with the views of the rising generation of voters and expanding population of minorities that helped propel Obama into office.

Every Gallup poll since 1999 has shown a majority of Americans favor normal diplomatic relations with Cuba.

‘Rigid Policy’

Obama underscored the theme of a generational repudiation of outdated policies in his remarks announcing he would open a U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961. He said the U.S. effort to isolate Cuba was “a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

It’s a truism of American politics that presidents focus on foreign policy in their second terms because it is an arena in which they can exercise greater authority without bringing along Congress. Clinton in his final years in office also looked to his authority in domestic areas, such as by designating more land as protected wilderness areas.

Obama “recognizes time is fleeting. He only has two years left,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former top political adviser. “These are big, challenging generational issues that he spoke about when he ran for office, and I believe he doesn’t want to leave office without addressing them.”

‘Big Heap’

Obama has taken the second-term strategy to a new level.

“The more typical model is that presidents in the last two years in office will do a bunch of little- to middle-sized things in the belief that those will add up to something big,” Galston said. “What’s distinctive about Obama is it’s a big heap of big things, and they’re highly controversial things.”

With his last presidential campaign in the past, Obama no longer needs to consider the personal political consequences. That includes reaction in the Cuban-American exile community in Florida, a critical swing state in presidential elections. Though among the younger generation of Cuban-Americans support for the embargo is waning.

The opening to Cuba harkens back to a pivotal moment early in Obama’s first presidential campaign. Answering a question during a July 2007 debate, Obama said he would be willing to meet without precondition with pariah foreign leaders to discuss differences. His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who later became his secretary of state and is a potential 2016 candidate, mocked his response as naïve.

Republican Backlash

A year later, his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, attacked an Obama pledge to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro “at a time and place of my choosing.” Obama said during the campaign that he would take steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba if the country made progress toward democracy.

An overhaul of immigration law to protect more undocumented workers from deportation was also a centerpiece of Obama’s 2008 campaign, as was action on climate change.

The administration abandoned its efforts to win congressional passage of a cap-and-trade regime limiting carbon emissions early in his administration because of opposition from energy-state senators. The China accord on carbon limits, which like the Cuba deal was negotiated behind the scenes and announced without any leaks that it was imminent, now comes on top of regulations issued earlier this year that will require coal power plants to reduce emissions.

Guantanamo Release

Obama also ordered the release this month of six prisoners from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the largest transfer out of the offshore jail in five years. On Dec. 16, he declared Alaska’s Bristol Bay, a 250-mile-long stretch of coastline, indefinitely off limits for oil and gas exploration.

“It kind of makes a mockery of all the crepe-hanging that went on after the election,” Axelrod said. “The president of the United States is a powerful figure and he intends to use that power in his last two years in office.”

Administration officials signaled quickly after the November congressional elections that Obama wouldn’t back away from aggressive use of presidential authority even though Republicans gained control of the Senate and expanded their majority in the House.

Senators Fuming

“We’re going to do what we think is best for the country,” Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told reporters and editors at a Nov. 7 Bloomberg Politics breakfast in Washington. “If they have disagreements about the things we do, they have the capacity to legislate.”

Republican senators were left fuming over the new Cuba policy.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential Republican presidential candidate whose parents left Cuba before Fidel Castro took power, vowed to use Congress’s power over government funding and ambassadorial confirmations to frustrate the opening to Cuba.

“We’re going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how you’re going to get an ambassador nominated and how you’re going to get an embassy funded,” said Rubio during a Capitol Hill news conference.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a Twitter post that he would “do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba.” Graham will chair the Senate appropriations subcommittee that handles funding for embassies next year.

Obama appears to have anticipated the criticism and discounted it.

“He and his advisers may have concluded that the Republicans will huff and they’ll puff but they won’t be able to blow the house down,” Galston said.

The new class of Republicans elected to Congress this year includes more members with a close connection to the party’s establishment wing and business interests, Galston said. That may raise Republican interest in reaching deals with Obama in area of mutual interest such as trade accords and an overhaul of the tax code.

If so, he added, “they’ll still have to work with a president who has angered them.”

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