Obama shakes off the haters, frees himself to lead

    Barack Obama seems to be channelling Taylor Swift.

    OK, I’ll need to explain that.

    In a new song, Swift celebrates the value of being oneself, and not giving a whit what the carping critics say: ‘Cause the players gonna play play play play play / And the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate / Baby I’m just gonna shake shake shake shake shake / Shake it off, shake it off.’

    That’s been the Obama credo ever since the midterm elections. It probably irks the Republicans no end that he has summarily shaken them off, and persisted in acting presidential. Not that long ago, the haters were assailing Obama as “weak” and “indecisive,” but it’s hard to buy that meme today, given his track record since mid-November:

    An executive order protecting millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation, thereby keeping their families together; an historic deal with China to curb fossil fuel emissions; an historic deal with Cuba to normalize diplomatic relations and forge new economic ties, thereby reopening the island to western influences, and a robust EPA crackdown on ozone pollution, otherwise known as smog, a well-documented cause of child asthma and premature death. Plus, he publicly endorsed “net neutrality,” warning that internet service providers might need to be regulated as a public utility, to ensure that all online traffic moves with equal speed.  Plus, he’s continuing to negotiate a potential breakthrough nuclear deal with Iran. (Plus, Obamacare enrollments are surging this month on the once-reviled federal website. Plus, the economy is enjoying its biggest job surge since the ’90s.)

    It’s obvious that Obama feels liberated these days. Republican opposition remains implacable (and is likely to be worse next year, when the GOP runs both congressional chambers), so why not fully flex the executive muscle that’s still available? Republicans hate everything he does anyway, so why not ignore them, maximize what’s doable in terms of presidential power, and just let them fume? So much for the “lame duck” label.

    And of course they’re fuming. Senator John Thune says, “I wish he had accepted the results of the (midterm) election and decided it was time to go in a different direction” – which is priceless, because we all remember how eager the Republicans were to accept the results of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and go in a different direction. As if. In 2008, roughly 57 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots (in the ’14 midterms, it was 36 percent), Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote and buried John McCain in the Electoral College 365-173…and the Republican response, at an Inauguration Night dinner,  was to strategize total war literally from day one.

    So at this point, with two years left on the clock, Obama loses nothing by leaving them out of the loop. Meanwhile, he can work to fulfill, to the greatest extent possible, his original (albeit hyperbolic) pledge to do transformational stuff. The thaw with Cuba fits that. His various environmental initiatives fit that. And he’s teeing up 2016 for the next Democratic nominee. His immigration moves will likely boost Hispanic support, which is critical in states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Mexico. His environmental moves will likely click with millennials and upscale whites. And his Cuba initiative gives Hillary Clinton a potent issue in pivotal Florida; Cuban-American voters want closer ties with the island (as does she), while most of the Republican hopefuls are already naysaying on the wrong side of history.

    Granted, Obama’s late-season surge won’t last indefinitely. The new Republican Congress will do its best to trip him up, perhaps finding ways to non-fund a new embassy in Havana, or non-fund deportation relief efforts, or gum up the EPA’s crackdown on smog. Which means that Obama will need to engage his foes from time to time, perhaps by forging more unappetizing compromises (as occurred on the just-passed $1.1 trillion spending bill, which features a noxious sop to Wall Street and an anti-reform provision that basically allows fat cats and special interests to buy the political parties). But what Obama has shown these past six weeks is that he’s still a player.

    In April 1995,  Bill Clinton was at such a low ebb that he actually pleaded at a press conference, “The president is still relevant here.” It’s hard to imagine Obama feeling a similar need to plead. Nor would the Cubans, the Chinese, the Iranians, the smog-producers, the five million immigrants who formerly faced deportation, the cable-company Internet providers, or even the Republicans think to question his relevance today.

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