With today's historic announcement that the U.S. would move to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama has confirmed that the last two years of his office may be his most momentous. This will come as a surprise to some.
"I think we're all agreed the president is fading," Peggy Noonan wrote for The Wall Street Journal — back in May, long before the Democrats were badly beaten in the midterm elections. "Failing to lead, to break through, to show he's not at the mercy of events, but, to some degree at least, in command of them."
"The Obama presidency is basically over," our own Michael Brendan Dougherty proclaimed in September. "Hope it was good for you, too."
But if the Obama era reached its nadir in November with the Republican takeover of Congress, the president has been on a tear since. First came a landmark climate change deal with China, which boosted hopes that the global community could reach agreement on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in 2015. The deal was the direct result of new EPA emissions regulations announced earlier in the summer, which amount to "the strongest action ever taken by the U.S. government to fight climate change," according to New York's Jonathan Chait.
Then came Obama's executive order to allow about five million undocumented immigrants to legally remain in the United States. It was a move that not only fulfilled an important liberal goal and shored up a crucial constituency for the Democratic Party, but also may have boxed in Republican presidential hopefuls on the issue.
Then there was the news that 2014 has been the best year for job creation since 1999, which may lift Obama's approval ratings and create space for the president to actually make some deals with the GOP.
And now Russian President Vladimir Putin, previously seen as wreaking havoc in Ukraine because of Obama's supposed inability to lead, is reeling from a currency crisis that can be partly attributed to sanctions that Obama championed.
More could be on the way. According to Steve Coll at The New Yorker, Obama is also considering closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — for real this time. "[I]f the president first reduces the prison's population to the smallest number possible through diplomatic measures and offshore transfers, he could finish the job with a flourish, either by vetoing congressional restrictions or by forcing Congress to weaken them, with the threat of a veto," he wrote. Just last week, the U.S. transferred six prisoners from Guantanamo to Uruguay.
It turns out that losing the Senate may have been the best thing to happen to the Obama presidency. While Obama has been free from personal electoral considerations since he won re-election in 2012, he held back on certain unilateral actions — most notably on immigration — to help out Democrats who were struggling to hold on to seats in competitive states.
No more. The Democratic caucus in the Senate is leaner, giving Obama an opportunity to be, well, Obama. That doesn't mean he will necessarily enact policies that will please liberals — the White House has telegraphed that it will offer the Keystone XL pipeline in exchange for concessions from the GOP. Furthermore, he will continue to face resistance from Congress, where Cuba hardliners oppose his request to lift a decades-old trade embargo that has failed to bring down the Castro regime.
But the last six weeks have shown that Obama has the will and the means to notch some very significant victories before he leaves office.