Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Obama's Late Surge

Ezra Klein on and Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo make similar comments on the strengthening close to the Presidency of Barack Obama.


Presidents often turn more moderate to make gains in their final years. Think of Bill Clinton's 1997 budget deal, or George W. Bush's 2007 (failed) immigration reform effort, or Ronald Reagan's 1986 tax reforms. Second terms can feel like new presidencies.

President Obama's increasingly successful second term has been the exception to that rule. It's been a concentrated, and arguably jaded, version of his first term. The candidate who was elected to bring the country together has found he can get more done if he acts alone — and if he lets Congress do the same.

That has been the big, quiet surprise of Obama's second term. Congress has become, if anything, more productive. And that speaks to a broader lesson Obama has learned about polarization in Congress: Since he's part of the problem, ignoring Congress can be part of the solution.

Obama's first-term foreign policy was largely defined by George W. Bush's wars. It's only been in Obama's second term that the foreign policy philosophy he previewed in the 2008 campaign has really been visible — and where Obama has shown himself to be to the left of many in the Democratic Party.

Even some congressional Democrats have balked at his negotiations with Cuba and Iran. But not only is Congress largely irrelevant to these deals (at least unless the opposition can overturn a presidential veto, which they almost certainly can't) but Obama doesn't have much pressing legislation before Congress, which makes it safer for him to anger them. In that way, Obama's increasing distance from Congress has been a boon to his foreign policy efforts.

But it's not just foreign policy where Obama has swung left. When he ran for president in 2008, he opposed same-sex marriage. It wasn't until 2012 that he "evolved" on the issue. But by 2015, he was embracing marriage equality as part of his legacy. He even turned his home into a symbol of celebration. Similarly, Obama has sought to use executive action to achieve in his second term what Congress wouldn't permit in his first: sweeping action on both immigration and climate change.

Both efforts show a basic reality of Obama's second term: Rather than working to find more compromise in Congress, which would necessitate choosing different issues and agreeing to much more modest solutions, Obama is sidestepping Congress with more aggressive, more polarizing actions. To put it another way, he's prioritizing the liberal policy outcomes he promised in the 2008 campaign above the compromise-oriented political approach he promised in the 2008 campaign.


This is what for many was so bracing about the end of June. This has been a long long seven years. What seemed like an uncertain list of achievements, long on promise but hacked apart by mid-term election reverses and Obama's sometimes over-desire for accommodation, suddenly appeared closer to profound, like a novel or a play which seems scattered or unresolved until all the pieces fall into place, clearly planned all along, at the end.

Whatever you think of this Iran agreement, it is not only the product of years of work but is core to the foreign policy vision Obama brought with him to the presidency. It's as core to the goals he entered the presidency with as anything that has happened in recent weeks. He has it in view; his political opponents will be very hard pressed to block him. And he is pushing ahead to get it done.

None of this is to say that there isn't a clear and palpable change in the President's affect and demeanor. His presidency is coming to an end and his range of action will diminish further as the presidential election moves to center stage next year. As the budget deficit has receded from public view, Obama's (damns) deficit has come to the forefront. After six and a half years in office, he may have a small stockpile of (damns) left. But he has none left to give. He is increasingly indifferent to the complaints and anger of his political foes and focused on what he can do on his own or with reliable political supporters. You can see it too in the more frequent lean-in-on-the-lectern moments during press conferences and speeches. He's truly out of (damns) to give. But it's more a product of focus on finishing aspects of his presidency in motion for years than of cramming at the end. For most of his supporters, this was the Obama they always wanted. And he's giving it to them. What comes off to reporters as testiness is more like the indifference of someone who's got work to do and is intent on doing it.

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