Everyone knows what lame-duck presidencies are supposed to be like: With his final election behind him and both houses of Congress under the control of the opposition party, a chastened and increasingly irrelevant president waits for the clock to run out, knowing that his signature accomplishments are behind him.
That script more or less describes the seventh and eighth year in power of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Barack Obama is tearing it up.
The prospect of leaving office in less than two years seems to have energized the President to tackle an ambitious list of policies in defiance of Congressional resistance. From unilaterally upending immigration policy and pushing climate regulations, to making a budget proposal full of bold, new liberal proposals and normalizing American diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama shows no sign of limiting himself to a caretaker role or giving in to Republican priorities. And the invigorated Obama looks like he’s having the time of his life. “I can’t think of another president who has moved as forcefully in the second term—in the post-midterm phase—to try to snatch the debate and put the opposition on defence,” says Bruce Buchanan, a specialist in presidential politics at the University of Texas at Austin.
On Tuesday, Obama asked Congress to authorize a military campaign against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But his request made clear that any such congressional vote would be little more than a formality. In his letter to lawmakers, he noted that he has already been waging such a campaign for months, and was interpreting the existing authorization to use force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as already giving him all the power he needed to fight ISIS today.
The new Obama was on display during his State of the Union speech on Jan. 20. Facing two Republican majorities, Obama served up cockiness and swagger. Congressional Democrats may have lost the Senate, but the President was still the President. “I have no more campaigns to run,” Obama said. As Republicans broke out in applause, he ad-libbed, “I know . . . because I won both of ’em.” As Democrats jumped to their feet to applaud, Obama gave them a mischievous wink. “His mindset is one of audacity,” says Buchanan. “He seems to be really charged, really pumped.”
With every turn, Obama gives the impression of a man who feels ever more free to speak his own mind, even at the risk of causing offence. Obama chose the Feb. 5 National Prayer Breakfast—an annual American ritual dating back to the 1950s, in which presidents, lawmakers and thousands of guests gather at a luxury hotel at the behest of a Christian fellowship organization—to ask the faithful to “uphold the distinction between our faith and our government.” Rather than pander to his audience, he sparked outrage by declaring that Islam was not the only religion ever “hijacked” for “murderous ends.” Lectured Obama: “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” The outcry from the religious right was immediate. The comments “are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore told the New York Times.
This new, unfiltered Obama is more than just talk. Perhaps his most audacious move has been to use an executive action to tackle the most controversial aspect of America’s immigration policy: what to do about millions of undocumented immigrants in America after Republicans in Congress blocked an up-or-down vote on a bill to reform the system. Mere weeks after the November election, Obama announced he would move alone. He used his executive authority to grant legal status to certain undocumented immigrants—who had been in the country for five years and had committed no other crime—giving them the right to live and work in the U.S. An estimated four million people could be affected.
Republican leaders were outraged and sought to stop the policy. They refused to extend past March funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes border security and immigration enforcement agencies. But they have yet to succeed in reversing it.
Obama is using unilateral authority to advance another major legacy issue: combatting climate change. He failed to win major climate change legislation when his party controlled both Houses of Congress early in his first term. Now he is using the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to impose major limits on greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S. The strict rules his EPA has announced on emissions from coal-fired power plants would reduce U.S. coal consumption significantly.
Republicans will seek ways to block those rules this year, but the EPA falls under Obama’s control and has the authority to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. Republicans may attempt legislative changes, but they face the daunting challenge of mustering 67 votes in the Senate to overcome a presidential veto—while holding only 54 seats.
Obama has urged other countries to set higher targets for climate emissions and struck an agreement with China, the fastest-growing emitter, to curb carbon pollution. “There is no doubt that climate is going to be a major legacy piece for him,” says Danielle Droitsch, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. “The tone of the administration is very much about taking a leadership role and pressing forward.”
Republicans, meanwhile, made authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline their legislative priority as soon as they took their seats in January. Obama made clear he would veto any attempt to short-circuit his much-extended review of the proposed project. The more they insisted the pipeline would create jobs, the more he belittled its potential impact. “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline,” he said in January’s State of the Union speech, urging Congress to pass a large infrastructure bill to rebuild domestic highways and bridges. “Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.”
The Keystone veto would only be the third of his presidency, but he also threatened in his State of the Union speech to veto Republican attempts to unravel his health insurance plan, his immigration policy, financial sector regulations, or any new sanctions on Iran while he works to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Tehran.
His $4-trillion budget proposal unveiled on Feb. 2 also showed a President bent on moving the country in a more progressive direction—and framing the conversation ahead of the 2016 presidential contest. It put pressure on Congress to blow up the caps on military and domestic spending that Obama himself signed on to in 2013 as part of an agreement with congressional Republicans to end a government shutdown. Seeking to put congressional leaders on the defensive, he called his demand “reversing mindless austerity.” Obama’s budget is not legislation, but a request to Congress, which must authorize expenditures.
With Republicans controlling both chambers, few of his requests will see the light of day. But his budget gives a roadmap to where he wants to take the country. He put forward a long list of new taxes, including almost $1 trillion in new taxes on the wealthy, while proposing new spending to subsidize child care for poor families and expand pre-kindergarten and community college education.
So aggressive was his progressive push that it was even too much for his own party. Although Obama styled his budget theme as “middle-class economics,” he sought to curb a tax subsidy that primarily helps the upper-middle class save for college. Obama reasoned that the affluent would save anyway and the additional revenue could be used to help the poor. The backlash was swift from his colleagues, and the White House quickly dropped the proposal.
But setbacks so far have been rare. In foreign policy, Obama surprised the world by announcing on Dec. 17 that, after more than half a century of isolation, the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba.
His moves are setting the table for the likely Democratic presidential contender, Hillary Clinton. She now faces the task of sorting out which of Obama’s initiatives to embrace, and how to grapple with the twin challenges of income inequality and economic growth. And, as Clinton prepares to take centre stage, it’s already clear Obama will not be fading into the background.