The last month has provided a glimpse of how President Obama plans to maintain his relevance in Washington while facing lame-duck status and a Republican House and Senate.
Wednesday’s surprise announcement that the U.S. was seeking to normalize relations with Cuba was the latest example of a new, muscular approach on executive action that has highlighted how Obama can enact change without Congress, while enlivening a dispirited liberal base.
To get the government-funding bill past the finish line, Obama sent his White House chief of staff to Capitol Hill to calm restive Democrats, and made last minute calls to allies such as Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking Democratic leader in the House, to secure its passage.
Both the executive actions and negotiations with Republicans are a sign of things to come for a White House that seemed to be playing defense for most of 2013 and 2014. And the moves come after a disastrous midterm election that saw the GOP gain the Senate majority as well as seats in the House.
The election gives Republicans more power in Washington at a time when Obama’s influence over his own party weakened. Yet the White House is signaling with its actions that it is far from willing to give away the spotlight.
“He’s made it pretty clear he’s not shrinking away,” said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf.
The growing sense of momentum, coupled with the sense that the president has many avenues — and newfound freedom — has the administration confident Obama can continue to exert his relevance.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that Obama was “pleased with the kind of progress that we have made” over the past few weeks, and that the White House had “accomplished” its goal of making 2014 a “year of action.”
“But there is a lot more that needs to get done, and the president has a long list of things that he is looking forward to tackling in the new year,” Earnest said.
The White House believes Obama’s unilateral moves won’t undermine his ability to strike bipartisan compromises on shared priorities with Republicans, especially on issues like trade and infrastructure.
While getting deals on either would be a challenge under any circumstance, the president believes such compromises could be achievable as part of a package including corporate tax reform.
And Obama's success in winning over members of his caucus on the funding bill underscored that he can still effectively twist Democratic arms toward his policy priorities.
That leverage will be crucial headed into a series of deadlines for must-pass legislative business, including securing funding for the Department of Homeland Security, raising the debt ceiling, and renewing the charter for the Export-Import bank.
“There are a whole bunch of these speed bumps that will really require the administration to thread the needle,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
And the White House appears confident that it can maintain sway on the left, despite the recent fissures.
While progressives felt betrayed by provisions in the spending bill that rolled back rules included in the Wall Street reform bill, they are elated over the Cuba news.
And the White House has other recent victories that it sees as building a reservoir of support with progressives.
Obama’s support for net neutrality regulations, announced in a blog post days after the midterms, helped repair his standing with both tech-savvy millennials and Silicon Valley donors.
And the confirmation of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy — who faced fierce opposition from the right over his support for gun control — gave liberals a rare victory on that issue.
The president’s immigration plan has boosted his standing 10 points among Hispanics, according to an NBC / Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday.
But aides also acknowledge that the president's achievements wouldn't be gaining notice if they were still battling some of the crises that dominated headlines over the summer — including the Ebola crisis and the flood of unaccompanied minors over the southern border. One official argued the effective resolution of those situations helped enable the president's work on other issues to gain resonance.
White House officials are also optimistic after a generally successful second ObamaCare enrollment period, and believe the confirmation of a dozen judicial nominees in the lame duck will pay additional dividends down the road.
In his final two years in office, Obama hopes to use dozens of new officials confirmed in the Senate’s final days to both protect his first-term accomplishments and build upon them.
Some executive action will also look to shore up the president’s standing on the issue of financial reform.
“I do anticipate that we’re going to expend some time and energy next year and the year after trying to counter the efforts of Wall Street firms and their lobbyists,” Earnest said earlier this week.
And the White House is thought to be preparing additional action to help blue-collar workers, including a new regulation forcing employers to make more workers eligible for overtime pay.
Earnest and other White House officials have also acknowledged that they’re preparing for the president to much more aggressively use his veto pen in the coming months.
Republicans have indicated they plan to pass legislation on a slew of hot-button issues, from the Keystone XL pipeline to ObamaCare to repealing Obama’s immigration reform actions.
Each instance is certain to offer red meat to Republicans, but also give the president and congressional Democrats the opportunity to stand unified against the rollback of their policy priorities.
“The veto will be an opportunity to redefine himself against the Congress,” said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. “A number of bills that Republicans might send him on fiscal and economic issues generally he can characterize as the same old Republican nonsense that brought us the crisis.”