Welcome to Obama Land

It seems the risk-averse leader is no more, and the world should prepare for 18 months of a bold, new president.


Since 2008, Barack Obama has struggled with how precisely to define his presidency. Was he the risk-ready transformer his base hoped for and his opponents feared? The hope-and-change candidate who promised to move beyond Washington’s partisan, shark-infested waters? Or was he the risk-averse transactor who by 2014 was talking more soberly about hitting singles and doubles? That year he somewhat mournfully told the New Yorker’s David Remnick that he was just trying to get his paragraph right in America’s long-running story.

Even after his 2012 re-election, which put him on track to join the very small club of 13 presidents who were re-elected and served out two full terms, this ambivalence continued. Obama’s second inaugural was very much a liberal manifesto, what the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza called a laundry list of progressive principles: gay rights, voting rights, climate change, immigration reform, gun control, support for entitlement programs, and a new energy policy.

But this aspirational agenda often seemed in conflict with the president’s caution and the more grounded political realities of 2013, perhaps the worst year of the Obama presidency. The deal on the fiscal cliff that inaugurated hope for significant legislation was followed by a disastrous health-care rollout, scandals involving the National Security Agency and the Internal Revenue Service, and no significant legislative bipartisan achievements. Indeed, it wasn’t until after the devastating Democratic trouncing in the 2014 midterm elections that the president moved to try to redeem that liberal legacy, this time through executive actions on immigration, unilateral diplomacy on climate change, and secret diplomacy on Cuba. If the Republicans hoped that their capture of Congress would turn Obama into a lame (or quasi-dead) duck, the president had no intention of cooperating.

Welcome to Obama Land, 2015.

In the seventh year of his presidency, Anno Presidentum 2015, Barack Obama is a conflicted political soul no more. The waning of life’s most precious commodity — time — has clearly energized rather than enervated him. And the president’s aspirational and realistic sides now seem reconciled in what he hopes will be the synthesis of his legacy in his final two years.

This new world features a president who is now seen by his supporters as positively unchained, unbound, and liberated to ensure as much success for his liberal agenda as possible or by his critics as a president who has taken leave of his senses. A president who somehow seems to have forgotten that it was the Republicans and not the Democrats who won the 2014 midterms, and one who faces a Republican Congress now in a position to block just about everything he laid out in his State of the Union speech, from access to affordable, quality child care, to overhauling the tax code, to improving the quality of child-care programs, to paid sick leave, to giving federal employees six weeks of paid parental leave, to closing the Guantánamo Bay prison.

But, no matter. His Republican opponents have been underestimating Obama since 2008. What counts now — and, really, what always has — is not how others, especially his critics, perceive this new world, but how the president plans to define it.

And like Gaul, Obama Land is divided into three parts: territory already traversed — what the president believes he has accomplished; the terra incognita of a Republican-controlled Congress; and the dangerous world beyond America’s shores. To each, Obama brings a preternatural self-confidence and an I’m-the-smartest-guy-in-the-room mentality. Indeed, as this president journeys through his dominion in the twilight of his presidency, you might think (and I suspect you’d be right) that the president has it all figured out. And here’s why.

Ground covered: He’s the greatest (well, almost).

The easiest part of the journey through Obama Land, of course, is the ground that has already been trodden. It’s the shiniest and brightest spot in the kingdom and the source of confidence in this spring-in-his-step president we now see in action. Until now, you got the feeling that the White House believed that even talking about economic recovery might jinx it and invoke the evil spirits of economic dislocation. That taboo is now broken. The crisis has apparently lifted. And the president is now putting the realities of recovery on full display and carrying them across the country too. And despite all the risks, downsides, caveats, and two-handed economic analysis, an improving economy — Americans’ top priority — is now undeniable. Millions have yet to feel its benefits, but the economic headlines and the trend lines now appear to be running in Obama’s favor.

In 2011, Obama made the following comment to CBS’s Steve Kroft, essentially admitting himself into the presidential hall of fame: “I would put our legislative and foreign-policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history.”

And that was just short of three years into his presidency. Now we’re six years in. And while the president strangely avoided crowing about Obamacare in his State of the Union, you know what he thinking as he delivered his speech: I brought America back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, produced legislation on health care that had eluded every one of my predecessors, got America out of two long profitless wars, avoided getting into another, and prevented another attack on the homeland. And who knows what else I may be able to do.

This guy is at the height of his self-confidence curve. He reportedly told his staff the morning after the November shellacking that, “These next two years are going to be the most interesting time in our lives.”

And the Republicans aren’t.

Obama has no illusions and — probably not much concern — about the second new feature in Obama Land’s political landscape: how to deal with the new reality of a Republican-controlled Congress in the final two years of his presidency. He made that clear by reminding his Republican friends in that funny but equally serious quip that he’d won both of his elections. It’s also evident from the fact that most everything he said in his State of the Union or has done recently (executive actions on immigration and climate change and his threats to veto the Keystone pipeline and more sanctions on Iran) could only be perceived as a red-flag agenda by the Republicans.

Maybe there’s a chance for a bipartisan deal or two. But this president seems to have concluded that the Republicans need him more than he needs them, certainly when it comes to demonstrating that they can actually function, govern, and get stuff done. And perhaps that’s the best explanation of all for Obama’s confidence — even bravado — in the face of Republican control of Capitol Hill. He has moved past the Republicans and is focused much more on the framing of his presidency than on chasing some elusive bipartisan deal. Three reasons tell you why.

First, Obama actually believes in his State of the Union-touted middle-class economics; and now that the sands are quickly passing through the presidential hourglass, it’s time to ensure that the words and deeds of his legacy show it. Second, tactically, challenging the Republicans on middle-class issues is smart politics. They may accuse him (again) of being a big-government, free-spending distributionist and get traction with their base, but millions of Americans will be compelled by much of what the president articulates when it comes to helping the hardworking, long-suffering middle class.

And finally the president knows that the chances for bipartisan cooperation are slim; indeed, the way he has framed his message and his own veto threats partially explain why. But he’s comfortable in Obama Land right where he is. And that place is the future — shaping his legacy, defining terms for the 2016 campaign, and even helping to make middle-class economics the key domestic agenda of the 21st century and influence the Republican agenda too. Issues such as the income gap and wealth disparity are already resonating across the aisle and prodding Republican candidates to refocus.

It’s a scary world, but Obama’s got this one too.

This romp through Obama Land finally brings us to foreign policy — the part of Obama Land where you might assume that the president has the least amount of control. It’s a complex and scary world, but here too Obama is convinced that both his own instincts and that of the public are in sync and that he’s got America’s priorities all figured out. The president traverses this part of Obama Land with a mixture of risk-readiness when it comes to diplomacy and risk-aversion when it pertains to using force. The point is, the president has it all figured out.

Here’s what one might hear were we to listen in on this self-confident president’s foreign-policy reveries:

My critics really don’t get it. But the American people do. Despite what John McCain and the other interventionists argue, I’ve got this foreign-policy thing under control. Only about 2 percent of the public thinks terrorism is the top problem facing the nation. I’ll protect the country, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to get into another trillion-dollar nation-building social science project in the Middle East.

First, I am the extricator in chief. My goal is to get America out of old and profitless wars (see Iraq and Afghanistan), not into new ones. Secondly, sure, Iraq is messy and so is Syria, and yes, I’ll fight terrorists, just not with large numbers of U.S. forces or through nation-building. Third, I’m the engager in chief. I believe in talking before shooting and bluster. The United States’ Cuba policy wasn’t working, so I changed it, and talking to Iran to get a nuclear deal could be a big legacy issue and is preferable to war. So, Congress should just butt out. All those hawks thought that I was weak on Crimea and Ukraine and that Vladimir Putin was strong. Things don’t look so good for Mr. Putin now. And that reversal came not from tough-talking bluster or using force, but from sanctions and building coalitions with our allies.

Eighteen months is an eternity for a presidency and is equally long in Obama Land. And circumstances, missteps, and smart moves can combine to produce all kinds of surprises — both for good and for ill. But for now, this president has reason to feel self-confident. Add to that his already deep and not always well-deserved sense of faith and trust in his own smarts and capacities, and look out. To borrow a line from Henry David Thoreau (who borrowed the line from English poet William Cowper), Barack Obama is indeed the monarch of all he surveys. Whether the king can keep his kingdom secure and prosperous for the next year and a half remains to be seen.


About the Author

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

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