The last thing any sane or seasoned political observer expected from a president who just underwent a midterm-election root canal are two major deals with China on climate change and trade. Within days of a new Republican majority in the Senate and Tea Party sweetening in the House, he’s also got a sudden burst of swagger on immigration reform. It’s leading many to ask: Where was that guy?
At least that’s the impression some are getting. Before bruising Republican gains put his lame-duck administration into a tailspin, the gum-chewing, dirt-off-the-shoulder president of this week was playing it safe.
Now there’s a sense that President Barack Obama is looking for a refresh, perhaps a long shot, Hail Mary end zone-to-end zone pass reliving his average 66 percent approval rating … from mid-February 2009. But maybe all’s not lost as the president sculpts his legacy in the final years. While conventional wise ones expect much of the same government-shuttering gridlock in Washington, Obama could pull off a bit of extraordinary political stagecraft. We’ll see.
The Root gathered bits of The Take on it in our weekly, expert cross section of prognostication and perspective from a number of public thought leaders:
Stephen M. Magu, professor, Hampton University, @SMacharia1: Paradoxically, the 2014 midterm elections may have handed President Obama the best opportunity to burnish his legacy. On immigration, by shifting responsibility onto the House, which has had a pending, Senate-passed immigration bill, and pledging to “make executive actions go away” if immigration reform is passed, the president set up a fight that Republicans are probably unwilling to have.
President Obama concluded an elusive deal with China on climate change, an issue the new Republican majorities are likely to have opposed anyway, given the cost of enforcing reductions in carbon emissions and the costs to the American economy. While any treaty may not pass muster in a new Republican-controlled Senate, executive actions may implement some aspects of the new trade deal. Overall, these two actions seem to have handed President Obama the template for a legacy: He can push popular actions that consolidate his legacy, bring to the fore the immigration fight (which Republicans do not desire to have) and probably help strengthen future candidates for the Democratic presidential ticket.
Ron Christie, Christie Strategies, @Ron_Christie: In a word: No. The climate-change pact puts stringent caps on the United States, while China is under no formal obligation to reduce their emission levels now or in the future. The president’s proposed action on immigration is not reform—it is executive overreach that will tarnish his legacy and poison the climate in Washington even more than it is today. Far from getting his mojo back, President Obama seems destined to head to lame-duck status even sooner than if he had elected to forge bipartisan consensus.
Ronda Racha Penrice, author, @rondaracha: I am hesitant to say that his recent political success surrounding climate change and trade with China, along with his renewed focus on immigration, has recharged him politically. The president’s foreign policy record has not been as much at issue in his opponents’ opposition to him as those on the domestic front. With Ferguson [,Mo.,] still in the headlines and the second round of the Affordable Care Act now in action, it is imperative for him to show presidential leadership domestically. In Georgia, David Perdue defeated Michelle Nunn simply by running on her association with Obama. I just saw the same dance in Louisiana with commercials opposing Mary Landrieu in her Dec. 6 runoff against Bill Cassidy. There are no hard political points offered. For that to be enough for defeat should trouble Obama.
To counteract it, he and his team better start amping up what this president has accomplished. Gas is under $3 a gallon in most states, and unemployment has dropped while the economy has grown. I got an email some time ago about how the Affordable Care Act has helped launch small businesses, since health care for oneself and family is no longer a huge obstacle. The Obama administration needs to start communicating his successes much, much better and much, much louder. So, no, I can’t say that President Obama has gotten his political mojo back, but I do believe he can get it back. It’s going to take a lot more effort, though.
Fatia Tolulope Kasumu, producer-blogger, @fatikmedia: He’s had his political mojo. Now, whether or not it has been respected is up for contention. Climate change is something Obama has very publicly stated in his agenda moving forward. He’s made it clear that is one of the hot topics to address before the end of his second term. Immigration is such a sexy topic today. Someone either knows someone, works with someone or has family members who have immigrated to the United States. It’s an issue that plays with the emotions of Republican lawmakers, as they have criticized decisions in the past.
Keaton Nichols, host of WURD UP, @SirKDizzle: The night of Nov. 4 made it official: President Obama will be on a legislative island for the last two years of his presidency. With Republicans playing an overly aggressive and, at times, underperforming role of watchdog, they now have further control over what the president would try to accomplish until 2016. So he has two choices: Accept that almost none of his legislation will pass or fight back using his position as the most powerful government official to enact real change.
With lawmakers bickering over which immigration plan they can squash next, President Obama is taking action through executive order that will prevent the 5 million Dreamers in the country from being deported. He’s pushed for the Trans-Pacific Trade Deal, which will eliminate tariffs on goods and services from 12 international trade partners and boost the U.S. presence in Asia. And in a climate of continued right-wing propaganda over global warming, President Obama continues to be a trailblazer for environmental protection (see 2014 U.S. Climate Action Report). Six years of political gridlock are enough for Mr. Obama. These are the last two years he will be able to call himself president of the United States. It seems as though he won’t let those years be characterized by what he tried to do, but rather by what he did—without help from Congress or the Senate.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.