Julie Pace & Nancy Benac
WASHINGTON (AP) – It was supposed to be a joke. “Are you still president?” comedian Stephen Colbert asked Barack Obama earlier this month.
But the question seemed to speak to growing weariness with the president and skepticism that anything will change in Washington during his final two years in office. Democrats already are checking out Obama’s potential successors. Emboldened Republicans are trying to push aside his agenda in favour of their own.
At times this year, Obama seemed ready to move on as well. He rebelled against the White House security “bubble,” telling his Secret Service detail to give him more space.
He chafed at being sidelined by his party during midterm elections and having to adjust his agenda to fit the political interests of vulnerable Democrats who lost anyway.
Yet the November election that was a disaster for the president’s party may have had a rejuvenating effect on Obama. The morning after the elections, Obama told senior aides, “If I see you moping, you will answer to me.” People close to Obama say he is energised at not having to worry about helping – or hurting – Democrats in another congressional election on his watch. He has become more comfortable with his executive powers, moving unilaterally on immigration, Internet neutrality and climate change in the last two months. And he sees legacy-building opportunities on the international stage, from an elusive nuclear deal with Iran to normalising relations with Cuba after a half-century freeze. “He gained some clarity for the next two years that is liberating,” said Jay Carney, Obama’s former press secretary.
Still, pillars of Obama’s second-term agenda – gun control, raising the federal minimum wage, universal pre-school- seem destined to stand unfulfilled. Wrapping up the Iraq and Afghanistan wars isn’t turning out to be nearly the tidy success story Obama once envisioned. Even supporters say one of the president’s top remaining priorities may have to be simply preventing Republicans from dismantling his earlier accomplishments, including the health care law.
The Yes-We-Can man is entering a twilight of maybes, his presidency still driven by high ambitions but his power to achieve them running out. Before the midterm election results arrived, Obama’s advisers say, the president realised he would finish his presidency with Republicans running Capitol Hill. He concluded the status quo would mean more gridlock.
Indeed, 2014 had been another year of fits and starts for a White House that has struggled to find its footing in Obama’s second term.
The feeble HealthCare.gov website stabilised, but scandal enveloped the Department of Veterans Affairs. Syria got rid of its chemical weapons, but the violent extremist Islamic State group pulled the US back into military conflict in the Middle East. The unemployment rate fell, but so did Obama’s approval ratings – to the lowest levels of his presidency.
Nearly two dozen White House officials, former Obama aides, presidential historians and political analysts discussed Obama’s standing as he closes his sixth year in office, some on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss their conversations with the president or his top advisers. For much of the year, Obama appeared to struggle with the realisation that his political standing had slipped.
He publicly complained about criticism of his foreign policy by pundits in Washington and New York. Despite pleas from his party to stay out of November’s elections, he said his policies were indeed on the ballot. He desperately looked for ways to break free of the confines of the White House.
Obama is realistically optimistic about what he can get done over the next two years, advisers say. He wants to try tax reform and sees opportunities to accelerate growth and job creation with the economy on firmer footing. Aides have reached out to historians and political scientists to solicit ideas for Obama’s next State of the Union address.