White House aides: Obama feels liberated and ready to be the president he always wanted to be

This feels like a threat. But maybe I’m only seeing it that way because of last month’s bar-lowering authoritarian power grab on immigration, with another authoritarian power grab on the Cuba embargo soon to come. If you’re into watching the president take ever bigger dumps on separation of powers, setting terrible precedents for his successors for decades to come, I suppose it’s good news after all.

Didn’t I read this same story a month ago in the New York Times, incidentally?

Obama feels liberated, aides say, and sees the recent flurry of aggressive executive action and deal-making as a pivot for him to spend the last two years being more of the president he always wanted to be…

He’s spent a year nudging Americans to judge him less on legislative accomplishments and more on his executive actions. And now he’s got a fully Republican Congress that he can alternate between butting up against and making deals with — but really not thinking about much at all.

“We were trapped in this debate of: ‘Is Obama helping or hurting?,’ ‘Was it a mistake to say his policies were on the ballot, or was it the right thing to do?’” a senior Obama aide said this week as the final details of American Alan Gross’s release from a Cuban prison — enabling the deal with the island country — were being worked out. “We are more the masters of our own destiny than we were before.”…

“This certainly has been our most productive year since the Republicans took over,” the Obama aide said, calling it, in the context of what happens in any presidency, “an excellent year.”

His “excellent year” involved every Democratic incumbent in the country running away from him and his low-40s approval rating, only to see them wiped out anyway in a mammoth nationwide anti-Obama backlash. You could understand him feeling liberated if Democrats had run on his policies and outperformed expectations; he would have pointed to that, not unjustifiably, as a mandate. Instead, “liberation” to Obama meant postponing virtually every major initiative until after voters were safely out of the way. He saved net neutrality for the week after the election; he saved executive amnesty for two weeks after; and who knows how soon the Cuba deal could have been struck if Obama wanted it done before November 4th. What he feels liberated from, in other words, is democratic accountability, which is not the sort of thing you want to hear from a guy who’s already blazed new unconstitutional trails in executive lawmaking. If this is what he’s doing in the first flush of “liberation,” what’s he going to be doing in the homestretch of his presidency in 2016, especially if Hillary has a safe-ish lead against her Republican challenger? You trust a man who’s reflected wistfully to his inner circle that it’d be easier to be president of China, don’t you? Especially with a sympathetic media cheering on his dubious, just-try-to-stop-me “winning streak.”

That reminds me of something I thought yesterday when the Cuba news was first breaking. One of the momentous but less remarked upon consequences of the deal with Castro is that it makes a nuclear deal with Iran much more likely, no? One striking thing about it, as a million different people have already observed, is how little Obama got in return for it. No major concessions on human rights, no concessions on moving towards democracy, no guarantees that American capital flowing into Havana won’t go straight into Raul’s and Fidel’s pockets. He handed the Castros U.S. recognition of their legitimacy in exchange for basically nothing. What he did get, though, was something important to him personally — something for his “legacy,” an extra line on his presidential resume about how he reopened Cuba when his predecessors had kept it closed for 50 years.

If legacy-building is job one for his foreign policy then a terrible deal with Iran on nukes becomes more feasible. It’s a logical sequel to the Cuba deal: If detente with an impotent Havana is a big success, how much bigger of a success it would be to achieve detente with the Shiite menace that’s been undercutting America for 35 years. There’s a legacy risk to that, of course — if O makes a deal and, as everyone expects, the mullahs go on quietly building up their bomb capabilities anyway, he’ll bear some blame for that in hindsight. Arguably, though, from a legacy standpoint, even a bad deal is the best option now open to him. He’s not going to bomb Iran; his natsec team long ago accepted that that would be more trouble than it’s worth. He doesn’t want to just plod on with the status quo either and then hand this baton off to a successor; after so much energy spent on rapprochement, that would feel like a dismal failure. So why not make a deal on the tacit understanding that if Iran keeps nuclearizing, they’ll at least have the courtesy not to make it obvious until he’s out of office, when the blame can be laid partly at the feet of his successor? He’ll have some easy excuses available to him: “If only President Hillary hadn’t done X to Iran or President Jeb hadn’t done Y, the deal I made with Khamenei in 2015 would have held. It’s their fault, not mine.” If he’s now committing to a “peacemaker” legacy, however phony or compromised that peace is, then it’s probably worth accepting even a lousy deal than maintaining the current impasse for two more years and getting an “incomplete” on his report card.

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