'Liberated' Obama builds momentum

President Obama is responding to a drubbing in the midterm elections with action. So far, it's paying off.

Obama's poll numbers — which had previously slid into the low 40’s — are up, and the president has enjoyed a streak of good headlines.

Those factors, coupled with a rising economy, are making the White House optimistic about his final two years in office.

White House allies say the president feels an increased sense of liberation with the elections over. They predict that he will continue to be proactive in the face of the Republican Congress that will take power early next year. 

After a mostly lackluster 2014, Obama was able to score a series of wins in the last six weeks by going on the offensive with a string of executive actions, a hitherto-secret plan to normalize relations with Cuba and a satisfying compromise on the omnibus.

“He doesn't feel constrained anymore,” said Steve Elmendorf, the prominent Democratic lobbyist and veteran of Capitol Hill. “I think he felt constrained before the election, a little too constrained, to protect vulnerable senators. Now he has a little more breathing room.”

A former senior administration official said that a more confident Obama has emerged since the midterm dustup: the one who hates to lose. While political pundits and others in the Beltway have been portraying him as a lame duck, Obama has fought back against that notion, the official said.

“The most remarkable trait of Barack ObamaBarack ObamaTrump’s complaints on media consolidation only the tip of the iceberg Supreme Court compromise: the case for a temporary justice America might be rooting for the Cubs, but shouldn't be MORE is that he's always had a confidence about him regardless of political wins or what pundits are saying,” the former official said.

“Throughout his presidency, even in the lowest moments when everyone was piling on, he’s always had this sense that ultimately he’s going to be vindicated and I think these events certainly helped.”

Obama’s winning streak was extended on Tuesday when new data from the Commerce Department showed that the economy grew at a 5 percent rate from July to September, the fastest pace in 11 years.

The news will surely add to Obama’s swagger on the economy. White House aide say he’ll continue to tout the recovery – and remind people of just how dire the situation was when he first took office — as part of an effort to define his legacy.

But as the president continues to play in the "fourth quarter," as he put it at his year-end press conference last week, even some of his most loyal allies are wondering how can he keep the momentum going.

Political observers caution that Obama will face significant roadblocks in the months ahead, especially now that all of Capitol Hill is Republican-controlled territory 

“It will be much, much harder,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Zelizer explained that Obama had a small window on the heels of the midterm elections with Democrats still in control of the Senate. But come January, he added, Republicans “will have much more muscle that they can flex in response to Obama’s use of executive power or the bully pulpit.”

To make matters all the more tricky, Obama will likely anger House Democrats along the way, as he did with the omnibus earlier this month.

Zelizer predicted that the consternation from Democrats will “intensify once he is more desperate for their votes.”

“The blowback will be much more severe,” Zelizer said, adding that a less aggressive Obama may emerge in 2015. “More of his life will be about playing defense.”

Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University, added that Obama might have to play the role of negotiator-in-chief, something that he’s rarely done during his presidency so far.

“If what we are now seeing is the real ‘Obama being Obama,’ I would expect more negotiating,” Jellison said. “If he is going to be the Obama that many people thought they were voting for, then he will be more of a negotiator.”

Still, it remains uncertain whether Obama will indeed shift his approach in that way. At the last White House news conference before departing for his Christmas vacation in Hawaii last week, he signaled in no uncertain terms that he would continue to pursue a series of executive orders, even at the expense of angering Republicans. 

"I’ve never been persuaded by this argument that if it weren’t for the executive actions they would have been more productive," Obama said.  “There’s no evidence of that.  So I intend to continue to do what I’ve been doing, which is where I see a big problem and the opportunity to help the American people, and it is within my lawful authority to provide that help, I’m going to do it.”

At the same time, he said, he would also continue to reach out to lawmakers to work together because “I think the American people would like to see us get some things done.”

Observers say a liberated Obama will still have the flexibility to appeal to the base that elected him in the near-future.

Christy Setzer, a Democratic strategist, said the White House realizes the party suffered a heavy defeat in November partly because “we failed to give reasons to vote for Democrats.”

“That’s all President Obama has been doing lately and will need to continue doing in 2015: giving his base things to be proud of, not just something to vote against,” Setzer said.

Besides using executive action, the former administration official said Obama also has another trump card: a capacity to pressure Republicans to shift away from outright obstruction.

“If Republicans want to demonstrate that they can govern, they have to prove that they can govern with the president they have now,” the former official said.

“Otherwise, it makes them look worse. The president needs to take advantage of that.”

Elmendorf put it more simply.

“He has to keep reminding people that he’s president,” he said.