Obama won’t coast to the end of his term

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Al­bert R. Hunt E-mail Bloomberg View Al­bert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

Repub­li­cans claim that Barack Obama is too pas­sive on for­eign pol­icy. A few Democrats see him that way when it comes to pol­i­tics. The pres­i­dent, how­ever, is plan­ning an ag­gres­sive fi­nale.

The one-year count­down to the end of his time in of­fice be­gins Tues­day with his fi­nal State of the Union ad­dress. Al­though this is an elec­tion year and the political en­vi­ron­ment is poi­sonous, Obama en­vi­sions a cou­ple of ma­jor leg­isla­tive achieve­ments, no­tably the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade agree­ment and an over­haul of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, which both have bi­par­ti­san sup­port in Congress. There also will be ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions, be­gin­ning with the one on gun con­trol he an­nounced last week, which he could fol­low with de­ci­sions on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues, such as clos­ing the de­ten­tion cen­ter at Guan­tanamo Bay, Cuba.

And, like all pres­i­dents, he’s look­ing for some for­eign pol­icy suc­cesses. He will fully lev­er­age his last year of ac­cess to Air Force One to tra­verse the globe.

“You saw how strongly the pres­i­dent came out of the blocks,” said De­nis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, re­fer­ring to the gun ini­tia­tive. “He wants this next year to be about the fu­ture and sees big op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Only a lit­tle more than a year ago, af­ter his party’s drub­bing in the midterm elec­tions, Obama was dis­missed as largely ir­rel­e­vant when Repub­li­cans took con­trol of Congress. Yet he scored no­table leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries in 2015, in­clud­ing bi­par­ti­san back­ing for trans­porta­tion and ed­u­ca­tional mea­sures, as well as the in­clu­sion of many of his spend­ing and tax pri­or­i­ties in the year-end govern­ment fund­ing bill.

On for­eign pol­icy, he reached a nu­clear ac­cord with Iran, es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions with Cuba, and rev­eled in a global cli­mate-change agree­ment in De­cem­ber. The Supreme Court handed the White House sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ries by re­ject­ing a chal­lenge to the Af­ford­able Care Act and le­gal­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage.

Many leg­isla­tive bud­get mat­ters for 2016 es­sen­tially are set­tled. Most Repub­li­cans — and a few Democrats — sup­port the Asia trade pact. And the re­cent fi­nan­cial tur­moil in China, which isn’t a party to the TPP, strength­ens the case for the agree­ment. Crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form has to over­come op­po­si­tion from right-wingers.

Pres­i­dents who don’t face re­elec­tion usu­ally want to go out with sig­na­ture achieve­ments, though events of­ten in­ter­fere. In 1960, Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower en­vi­sioned a break­through in re­la­tions with the Soviet Union. But then a U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down over Rus­sia and a sub­se­quent sum­mit meet­ing col­lapsed over the in­ci­dent.

Eight years later, in 1968, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son was frus­trated by the lack of progress in set­tling the Viet­nam War, and saw his hopes for an arms treaty fall apart when Soviet tanks rolled into Cze­choslo­vakia that sum­mer. In 2000, Bill Clin­ton’s dream of a fi­nal sta­tus agree­ment be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans was thwarted by Yasser Arafat. Ge­orge W. Bush seemed spent in his fi­nal year. One of the few fi­nal-year suc­cesses was Ron­ald Rea­gan, who won rat­i­fi­ca­tion of an In­ter­me­di­at­eRange Nu­clear Forces Treaty with the Sovi­ets.

Obama joins his two pre­de­ces­sors in leav­ing of­fice while still rel­a­tively young, notes the em­i­nent pres­i­den­tial scholar Michael Beschloss: “They want a legacy in their last year, but it also sets the stage for their post-pres­i­dency.”

There’s real po­ten­tial for set­backs for Obama this year: The bat­tle against the Is­lamic State, the threat of more ter­ror­ist at­tacks, or a plum­met­ing global econ­omy. But suc­cesses or fail­ures in 2016 might only marginally al­ter the Obama legacy. If the Iran nu­clear deal and the Af­ford­able Care Act fail, he will be seen more as an in­ter­est­ing pres­i­dent than as a sig­nif­i­cant one. If, how­ever, th­ese achieve­ments — along with the re­cov­ery from the fi­nan­cial cri­sis — are viewed as en­dur­ing suc­cesses, Obama prob­a­bly will be re­mem­bered as a near-great pres­i­dent.

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