President Obama has taken significant steps to the left since his party’s devastating losses in the midterm elections.
In a surprise, he announced a major deal on climate change with China during a trip to Beijing Tuesday. That followed another unanticipated move — a Monday statement pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to adopt new net neutrality rules for the Internet.
The moves are helping to rally a dispirited Democratic base while re-establishing Obama’s political leadership after he was sidelined during the midterms.
“He’s at his best when his back is against the wall,” said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. “Jeremiah Wright in 2008, Scott Brown’s election in 2009, after the first debate in 2012 — he comes back and tends to fight pretty hard.”
“He’s a fourth-quarter player, and he’s in the fourth quarter of his presidency,” Shrum added.
The moves are also prompting questions about whether Obama is shifting to the left in his final two years in office, or if the moves are meant to cushion the blow when he moves to the center to negotiate with a Republican-controlled Congress.
The question is weighing heavily on members of both parties, particularly ahead of Obama’s decision on whether to take expansive executive actions on immigration.
Liberals are also hoping the president could take executive action to close the Guantánamo Bay prison that he promised to shutter upon first taking office. And the administration faces a deadline in less than two weeks to conclude negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal meant to prevent that country from accessing nuclear weapons.
On all three issues, Obama could significantly burnish his legacy without any action by a Congress that will be controlled by Republicans.
Strategists argue the president now has little to lose.
“There’s a very short time span for the rest of this presidency,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “It effectively ends the day presidential candidates announce their intention to run, and they know that.”
Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said the efforts on net neutrality and climate were “great news, and the kind of big ideas that America needs — and that voters need to associate with Democrats.”
But, Green argued, Obama needs to keep his foot on the accelerator, fighting for additional “bold ideas” championed by progressives like expanding Social Security benefits, taking on Wall Street and making college more affordable.
And progressive immigration activists like CREDO Mobile political director Becky Bond said Obama needs to push hard on immigration.
“There can be no half measures,” Bond said.
Keeping Democrats and the liberal base encouraged and happy is a good political strategy for the president, because he’ll need allies in the House and Senate if his veto threat is to carry weight as he negotiates with Republicans.
“The one thing the administration has to be careful of is not to make the Democrats feel irrelevant when the new Congress is seated because at some point he may need the Democrats in the Senate to sustain a filibuster, or the House to sustain his veto,” Democratic consultant Michael Fraioli said.
But the strategy also could endanger the president’s ability to strike deals down the road. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHoyer signals House vote on bill to 'remove' debt limit threat Biden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan MORE (Ky.) called the climate agreement distressing and said it was “not helpful” for negotiations on mutual goals in the new Congress. Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Debt ceiling games endanger US fiscal credibility — again MORE (R-Ohio) has previously warned immigration action could “poison the well” on future collaborations.
Both Democrats and Republicans are worried about the terms of a nuclear deal with Iran. Sens. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden's Supreme Court commission ends not with a bang but a whimper Hispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act MORE (D-N.Y.) and Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezDemocrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden Rand Paul blocks quick vote on House-passed B Iron Dome funding MORE (D-N.J.), among others, worry it could leave Israel vulnerable and empower Iran.
Closing Guantánamo is also a thorny political issue, given the problem of what to do with the remaining prisoners there.
The White House might believe that by building up good will, Obama will be able to better weather hurt feelings within his base as he’s forced into political compromises through his last two years.
That could be particularly true as the political agenda turns to topics on which Democrats are not united.
For instance, Obama has signaled openness to negotiating new free-trade agreements, despite opposition from pro-labor lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt Fight over Biden agenda looms large over Virginia governor's race MORE (D-Nev.). Similarly, Democrats are split over the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, with warring union and environmental coalitions on opposite sides.
“There may be people excited today about what he did on climate change, but if he vetoes Keystone there’s going to be a lot of upset workers,” Fraioli said. “He’s got a delicate dance going for the next two years.”
White House aides declined to comment on whether Obama was feeling new freedom post-election, but pointed out that the president himself had signaled a determination to “deliver as much as I can for the American people in these last two years.”
“Wherever I see an opportunity, no matter how large or how small, to make it a little bit easier for a kid to go to college, make it a little more likely that somebody is finding a good-paying job, make it a little more likely that somebody has high-quality healthcare — even if I’m not getting a whole loaf, I’m interested in getting whatever legislation we can get passed that adds up to improved prospects and an improved future for the American people,” Obama told reporters last week.