White House

Obama Won't Coast to the End of His Term

Priorities include selling Congress on the TPP and criminal justice reform.

A promise deferred.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Gety Images

Republicans claim that Barack Obama is too passive on foreign policy. A few Democrats see him that way when it comes to politics. The president, however, is planning an aggressive finale.

The one-year countdown to the end of his time in office begins on Tuesday with his final State of the Union address. Although this is an election year and the political environment is poisonous, Obama envisions a couple of major legislative achievements, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and an overhaul of the criminal justice system, which both have bipartisan support in Congress. There also will be executive actions, beginning with the one on gun control he announced last week, which he could follow with decisions on controversial issues, such as closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

And, like all presidents, he's looking for some foreign policy successes. He will fully leverage his last year of access to Air Force One to traverse the globe.

"You saw how strongly the president came out of the blocks," said Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, referring to the gun initiative. "He wants this next year to be about the future and sees big opportunities."

Only a little more than a year ago, after his party's drubbing in the midterm elections, Obama was dismissed as largely irrelevant when Republicans took control of Congress. Yet he scored notable legislative victories in 2015, including bipartisan backing for transportation and educational measures, as well as the inclusion of many of his spending and tax priorities in the year-end government funding bill.

On foreign policy, he reached a nuclear accord with Iran; established diplomatic relations with Cuba and reveled in a global climate-change agreement in December. The Supreme Court handed the White House significant victories by rejecting a challenge to the Affordable Care Act and legalizing same-sex marriage.

Many legislative budget matters for 2016 essentially are settled. Most Republicans -- and a few Democrats -- support the Asia trade pact. And the recent financial turmoil in China, which isn't a party to the TPP, strengthens the case for the agreement. Criminal justice reform has to overcome opposition from right wingers.

McDonough insists that the president won't shy away from controversies such as finding a way to shutter Guantanamo: "He feels a responsibility to resolve this."

Presidents who don’t face re-election usually want to go out with signature achievements, though events often interfere. In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower envisioned a breakthrough in relations with the Soviet Union. But then a U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and a subsequent summit meeting collapsed over the incident.

Eight years later, in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was frustrated by the lack of progress in settling the Vietnam War, and saw his hopes for an arms treaty fall apart when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia that summer. In 2000, Bill Clinton's dream of a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was thwarted by Yasser Arafat. George W. Bush seemed spent in his final year.

One of the few final-year successes was Ronald Reagan, who won ratification of an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviets.

Obama joins his two predecessors in leaving office while still relatively young, notes the eminent presidential scholar Michael Beschloss: "They want a legacy in their last year, but it also sets the stage for their post-presidency."

There's real potential for setbacks for Obama this year: The battle against the Islamic State, the threat of more terrorist attacks or a plummeting global economy.

But successes or failures in 2016 might only marginally alter the Obama legacy. If the Iran nuclear deal and the Affordable Care Act fail, he will be seen more as an interesting president than as a significant one. If, however, these achievements -- along with the recovery from the financial crisis -- are viewed as enduring successes, Obama probably will be remembered as a near-great president.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.