WASHINGTON -- So much for the notion that President Barack Obama is a lame duck. After his party lost control of Congress, the president was depicted as an executive with little power to accomplish anything on his agenda for the next two years.
Instead, Obama has arguably made a bigger splash in the past two months than he has since his 2012 re-election. And there's more he can do in the last two years of his term, even with a GOP-controlled Congress: Institute tighter climate change restrictions, make foreign policy moves, perhaps even close the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Since the midterm smackdown that was supposed to curtail Obama's power, he has issued executive orders that sheltered millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. He has -- also in the face of Republican opposition -- tightened regulations on coal plants, negotiated with China to address climate change, called for the Federal Communications Commission to "implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality" and pushed for negotiations with Iran. Now he’s made the biggest change in Cuba policy in decades -- without consulting Congress.
He was even able to score some wins before Congress adjourned for the holidays. Thanks to some help from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada -- and arguably Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who delayed the Senate over a procedural fight -- 132 executive nominations were approved in the last session, the most in 33 years. Obama was even successful in sticking with controversial surgeon general nominee Vivek Murthy, who was confirmed by the Senate at last. The president threw his weight behind a $1.1 trillion spending bill by teaming up with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“I look forward to Republicans putting forward their governing agenda,” Obama said the day after the November election. “I will offer my ideas on areas where I think we can move together to respond to people’s economic needs.” Turns out he wasn’t really interested in waiting.
The first sign that he was willing to leave Republicans behind came when he signed the executive orders on immigration. The day Obama publicly announced the contents of the orders, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough traveled to the Capitol to brief Democratic lawmakers. There was no briefing for Republicans, no attempt to explain the orders or give even the appearance of being open to counter-arguments. The GOP was left to read media reports.
Obama knew he wasn’t going to get anyone from the Republican Party to endorse his move. Even those in the GOP who agreed with him on the policy disagreed with his way of enacting it. Leaving them out of the loop? No loss.
Acting on immigration is a legacy-building move by the president, especially among the 5 million undocumented immigrants affected, their family and friends -- and, the Democrats hope, tens of millions of Latinos. In the worst-case scenario, Republicans sue him for overreach and the courts reverse his orders. He would still be remembered as the president who fought for immigrants. And if the orders are allowed to stand, he’s the president (and the party) who brought millions "out of the shadows," many of whom could one day become citizens or already have children who are.
Obama’s move on Wednesday to restore relations with Cuba is another example of legacy-building. Dealing with Cuba has confounded presidents for years. It’s long been clear the embargo wasn’t accomplishing much: Most of the rest of the world, including close U.S. allies like Canada, Mexico and Britain, do business with Cuba. And as many analysts pointed out, Washington has diplomatic relations with former foes like Vietnam and mainland China.
But there were still strong feelings that the Castro regime couldn't be trusted and that relaxing the embargo would only reward the Cubans without forcing them to make human rights or government structure changes.
Repealing the entire embargo would have required Obama to go to Congress. It would have been virtually impossible for him to succeed in getting them to roll back the restrictions, even if Democrats had controlled both chambers. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, a Cuban-American, is adamantly opposed to loosening the embargo. So instead of trying to make the case to Congress, Obama with almost no warning, announced he would be acting on his own. Cuban-American Democrats in Congress reported they had only been briefed on Wednesday morning, after news leaked to the media that the changes were coming.
Of course, many Republicans were livid about the move. “If anything, this emboldens all state sponsors of terrorism, as they now have an even better idea of what the president meant when he once told Russian leaders he would have ‘more flexibility’ after his re-election,” Boehner said after the announcement by the president. “We have seen this before, and I fear we will see it again.”
But as with the immigration orders, there may be very little Republicans can do to stop the president. It’s well within his constitutional authority to make foreign policy decisions. They could try to defund diplomatic efforts in the nation, but that will require them to engage in line-item fights over the Department of State budget.
Many congressional Democrats are thrilled to see Obama acting on his own, giving them fewer fights to wage with Republicans in Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California praised the president for acting alone on immigration and echoed the sentiment on Cuba on Wednesday. Reid led a chorus backing him on the Cuba policy change. “I support President Obama’s decision for the United States to start a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba,” Reid said. “I remain concerned about human rights and political freedom inside Cuba, but I support moving forward toward a new path with Cuba.”
So far, there has been little tangible fallout from the president’s unilateral actions. Many Republicans warned Obama after he moved on immigration that he would “poison the well” and make it impossible to accomplish anything with Congress for his last two years.
But less than two months later, the president and Boehner allied to get a $1.1 trillion spending bill passed. Despite roaring opposition from right-wing Republicans like Cruz, dozens of nominations were able to move through the Senate the last week of session.
The results of his go-it-alone strategy so far would seem likely to embolden Obama further. If the GOP's sweeping midterm win was expected to hamstring the president, it seems more to have had the effect of a temporary cramp, not a permanent crippling.