A post-election flurry: Obama tests his powers

AP News
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Posted: Dec 18, 2014 6:06 PM
A post-election flurry: Obama tests his powers

WASHINGTON (AP) — With a recent streak of activism, President Barack Obama is shaking up the governing status quo and creating a new normal for his successors.

Whether it's immigration or Internet access, climate change or Cuba, Obama is laying down a foundation that while fragile and subject to change is defining how he enters the final two years of his presidency and what he leaves for the next White House occupant.

In the weeks since the midterm elections gave Republicans full control of Congress, Obama has acted in unbridled ways on foreign and domestic policy fronts. The list is significant. In addition to taking executive actions to shield millions of immigrants from deportation, securing anti-pollution goals with China and undertaking a historic diplomatic opening with Havana, Obama has sought to sustain new ties with once reclusive Myanmar, make Alaska's Bristol Bay off limits to oil and gas drilling, and affirm "net neutrality."

David Axelrod, a former senior Obama adviser, said: "He is someone who ran for office to tackle big, lingering problems and, now, as he looks at the final years of his administration, he seems determined to use every tool at his disposal to make progress on as many of them as he can."

Aides and advisers say that even if Obama's actions can be undone, he is giving the public a taste of change that would be difficult to reverse.

"Though his powers are significant, they're not without limit, so some of the actions he's taken could be reversed by future presidents," Axelrod said. "But is some future president really going to want to reach back and break relations with Cuba? Or put millions of undocumented workers who have lived and worked here for years back on the list for deportation?"

The elections have had a liberating effect on the president even while inflicting a heavy cost on his party's agenda. The sentiment at the White House the day after the Democrats got a midterm drubbing was that the only thing worse than confronting an all-Republican-led Congress was continuing the stalemate of the previous four years.

Politics, of course, are still a factor in presidential decisions, but no longer does Obama have to weigh the effect his decisions would have on his own electoral prospects or consider the parochial concerns of vulnerable Democrats like he did in delaying his immigration measures.

For Obama, another consequence of his actions is that they have exposed cracks in the Republican Party. GOP lawmakers have not come together on a specific strategy on how to undo his immigration initiatives and a minority still believes the party should overhaul the system and get the issue behind them. The Cuba opening, while loudly decried by Republican leaders, also cleaves the party, with farm state lawmakers and those with more libertarian outlooks having a more favorable view of new relations with the island.

Those divisions were in stark relief Thursday when Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is eyeing a presidential run, became the most prominent Republican to side with Obama on Cuba, declaring that a half-century-long economic embargo hasn't worked.

"If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn't seem to be working, and probably, it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship," Paul said in a radio interview.

Other potential Republican presidential candidates, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have all criticized Obama's decision to open an embassy in Havana and ease economic and travel restrictions on Cuba.

Pushing though his agenda doesn't mean Obama has clear sailing ahead. He had a similarly upbeat December in 2010 when, after seeing Democrats lose control of the House, he secured a deal with Republicans extending Bush-era tax cuts, and won repeal of the ban on openly gay military service and approval of a major nuclear treaty with Russia.

But in time gridlock returned.

Former Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican and foreign policy specialist who has supported an opening to Cuba, said congressional inaction has prompted Obama to make bold moves with his executive authority. "The problem with executive orders," he added, "is that they do create enormous antagonism, very emotional responses from many members of Congress."

Obama's executive actions also are not permanent. Only Congress can lift the economic embargo against Cuba. Obama's immigration measures would expire in 2017. His ambitious climate change goals aim to set 2025 emissions more than one-quarter lower than they were in 2005. The new pollution standards would require the support of subsequent presidents.

"Clearly the clock is ticking and he's got a lot of stuff he wants to get done," said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic-leaning Washington think-tank and a longtime advocate of overhauling immigration laws. "How lasting are these things? We'll find out. But certainly he's leaving tracks on the ground where he is advancing his agenda."