Obama spurns lame-duck label

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President Obama is governing like a man with nothing left to lose.

After being dealt a stinging midterm rebuke at the ballot box, Obama has gone on offense — most notably with executive action on immigration that could shield 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation.

The White House is winning news cycles and setting the national agenda, despite a Republican Congress that felt emboldened after their electoral gains. And the shift is infusing confidence into the White House and a Democratic base disheartened after the midterms.

“We feel good on how the last two and a half weeks have gone here,” senior presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Friday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

“Typically when you have a change in power in Congress, the new congressional majority dominates the conversation and drives the discussion. Since right after the election, the president has been driving the discussions and moving forward aggressively on core priorities,” Pfeiffer said.

“The president still has a full quarter of his presidency left and his intention is to make use of every minute,” said former White House spokesman Bill Burton.

The shift has been apparent ever since the midterms, which had effectively sidelined Obama.

For much of 2014, the White House walked on eggshells, punting on policy and trying to avoid doing anything that could hurt Democratic candidates.

That Obama is gone.

Even before the big move on immigration, Obama had announced a climate change deal with China and taken on Republicans over Internet rules, regardless of the views of centrist Democrats.

Last week, the administration indicated its intention to veto a bill sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) that would have authorized the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer said Obama had little choice but caution in the months preceding the midterms because of his poor approval ratings.  

“Democrats were feeling that his presidency was costing them seats,” he said

And the truth is Obama’s unpopularity was a drag on his party’s candidates that has led to public flare-ups, most notably with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) chief of staff.

But even Republicans have argued that keeping Obama in the bullpen sidelined the Democratic Party’s strongest voice and a proven vote-getter in 2008 and 2012.

With his name no longer on a ballot, Obama is now expanding his travel schedule and signaling he intends to be aggressive.

Obama has benefited from the news cycle. Fears about an Ebola epidemic have lessened, while the Secret Service has announced a series of arrests.

And Obama’s actions have pushed the fight over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria off the front page.

While Republicans won’t take over the Senate until January, they now bear pressure to show that they can govern — another change helping the White House.

Election Day also ended the barrage of attack ads criticizing the president and his policies that flooded the airwaves, providing a persistent reminder of his missteps and bungles. 

“In 2014, there was about $1 billion in ads spent against the president,” Pfeiffer said. “If there was more than one ad supporting the president in 2014, I did not see it.”

Other factors are also at play. Jim Manley, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), chalks the president’s ambitious use of executive action up to new Republican leaders signaling they weren’t prepared to move on issues like immigration even with the majority.

“If he takes the Republicans at face value, the president had no other choice to go forward with this action and other actions I expect he’s got lined up going forward,” Manley said.  

There’s also a sense that the president is increasingly aware of his impending lame-duck status, as well as the narrowing window to make a mark before attention is consumed by the race to replace him.

“I think there is no reward for being meek here,” Pfeiffer said. “He does feel the pressure of time. We all do. As the president says to us, this is the greatest opportunity any of us will have in our lives to do good for people. He wants to maximize it every day.”

Still, the White House insists that the president isn't truly unchained. Obama sees assisting the next Democratic presidential nominee as a top priority and essential to cementing some of his presidency’s accomplishments, aides say. He's also acutely aware of the fact that while the Senate map favored Republicans this year, 2016 provides many opportunities for his party to play offense.

“This is a really small window where he can breathe a little easier,” Zelizer said.

The biggest test of the limits of the White House’s new approach could be fast arriving.

A Missouri grand jury is poised to reach a decision on whether a white police officer will face criminal charges in the shooting death of an unarmed black Ferguson teenager. Lawmakers and activists have warned that unrest or violence could follow the announcement, and that will intensify pressure on the president to speak out. 

Over the summer, Obama left allies in the civil rights community dissatisfied when he took days to comment on the situation and then delivered an initial statement many viewed as restrained. Obama later broadened his efforts, but many saw Ferguson as an example of the president being overly cautious in a moment that demanded a more aggressive approach.

The White House has declined to say if Obama would speak out about the incident, and strategists like Simmons say the administration response could come from someone like Attorney General Eric Holder, who has led the investigation into the incident and traveled to the area. 

“The president has to walk a careful line because of the fact it was an open criminal investigation,” Pfeiffer said. “That will be true no matter what year the presidency is in.”