Obama’s last two years: Less is not more
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
It looks like President Obama has begun to feel he can fly free. No longer possessing political power in either chamber of Congress and having less than two years left in office, the President is feeling less and less beholden to any constituency or even to his own party. This is true with respect to his legislative agenda and his budgetary priorities as well as to his views and approaches to foreign policy.
Obama’s situation is based on two absolutely incontrovertible facts. First, he never will have to face an electorate again. From here on he is only running for his place in history. Second, the President faces no judge for his views or his positions. Any of the niceties which he invoked during his first six years are of no value to him any longer. He can be his own person. The President also recognizes that he is unlikely to have any major successes — certainly not legislative successes — during his final years in office.
Obama has suffered over the past six years from an angry Republican force in Congress bent on obstructing his agenda and leaving him with as few accomplishments as possible. Now, he is dishing it right back to the Republicans. He will propose and present programs and ideas to the American public in which he genuinely believes. Legislative inaction will demonstrate how ungovernable things have become. Finally, he can blame the opposition without any political repercussions.
On the domestic scene, the President knows that, from specific legislative proposals as well as grand reforms, nothing innovative will pass during the next two years. From the Keystone pipeline to immigration reform to climate change, Congress will not enact progressive legislation which he would be prepared to sign into law. Similarly, there are unlikely to be any major changes to the tax code or reforms of the budgetary process. The President, as it were, will play Senator again, presenting priorities and policy directives that he holds deeply but which will never see the light of day. He can be as left-wing as he wishes both in domestic politics as well as foreign policy with no political consequences.
Sadly, all this inactivity could have a very serious long-term impact on the country, the world, and Democratic Party. For the 2016 election, Obama will not make it easier for Hillary Clinton — or whoever is the democratic nominee — to run on his record. At the same time, it will enable the candidates to break more easily with the President as they seek the nomination. It is as if Obama feels he can abandon the party to promote his own views.
For the country, Obama was not elected for a six-year term. His own legacy aside, he needs to govern. A president who chastised the Republicans as “obstructionist” needs to pass even compromised legislation.
In the international arena, Obama has a much more intense and critical challenge, which he also ought not to abandon. In the Middle East and beyond, he can’t ignore perpetrators of international aggression, gamesmanship, and terrorism. Radical political behavior must be called out if Obama’s children will have a civilized world in which to raise their own families. Political correctness is not a viable, functional, operative model. Dealing with Vladimir Putin in Russia, Iranian nuclear ambitions, and the radical Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East cannot be papered over with lofty words and symbolic gestures. The United States must be actively engaged, with a thoughtful and committed strategy.
For the remainder of his term, Obama must be affirmative and engaged. If not, he will leave an ugly legacy for whomever he bequeaths the leadership of the nation in 2017.