No one can accuse President Barack Obama of phoning it in any more. He’s going big, acting on his own to break the logjam in our nation’s capital.
During the last month, he has taken executive action on a climate change deal with China, on fixing our broken immigration system and, last week, on restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba.
“I’m energized. I’m excited about the prospects for the next couple of years,” Obama said Friday in his end-of-the-year news conference before heading to Hawaii for some R&R.
He bragged that “America is making significant strides where it counts,” and he vowed to keep using his executive powers where he sees a big problem that needs addressing. How historic these recent moves end up being — and how good for America — won’t be clear for years yet.
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Still, this renewed activism by Obama is welcome. Friday, he was remarkably ebullient for someone whose job approval rating is in the tank and whose party took a shellacking in the November election.
Maybe he’s just relieved to survive the string of crises this year — the Russian incursion in Ukraine and the Ebola outbreak, to name two. He also sees opportunities to cement his legacy, with only two years left in his presidency. Apparently, he’s not satisfied with a Nobel Peace Prize, as premature as that was in his first year in office.
When Obama returns from his two-week holiday, there are other legacy issues that deserve his attention. Here’s a big one: rebuilding America’s middle class. Study after study shows that the gap between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us has widened during and since the Great Recession.
He’s talked a lot about this issue; he needs to follow through with concrete steps. He pledged Friday to pursue making the tax code simpler and fairer, which would help many families, and investing in infrastructure, which would create more jobs.
While he said again that he’s sincere about trying to work with Republicans, who will control the House and Senate come January, he understands it’s going to be awfully difficult to get major legislation passed.
Indeed, Obama may have his hands full just playing defense. Some Republicans keep trying to roll back health care reform, his signature achievement. Some want to block his deportation relief plan. They could try to slow closer ties with Cuba by refusing to fund a full embassy or rejecting Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Havana.
Sure, it would be better if bipartisan cooperation suddenly broke out in Washington, D.C. But as much as Republican leaders might squawk, Obama is showing that he’s willing to use his power and bypass Congress to tackle major issues.
As Obama is reminding us, even lame-duck presidents are relevant.