Quotes of the day

President Obama is responding to a drubbing in the midterm elections with action. So far, it’s paying off…

“He doesn’t feel constrained anymore,” said Steve Elmendorf, the prominent Democratic lobbyist and veteran of Capitol Hill. “I think he felt constrained before the election, a little too constrained, to protect vulnerable senators. Now he has a little more breathing room.”…

“The most remarkable trait of Barack Obama is that he’s always had a confidence about him regardless of political wins or what pundits are saying,” [a] former [senior administration] official said.

“Throughout his presidency, even in the lowest moments when everyone was piling on, he’s always had this sense that ultimately he’s going to be vindicated and I think these events certainly helped.”

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Improving views of the economy have helped hike President Barack Obama’s approval rating to a 20-month high, a new CNN/ORC poll showed Tuesday, as markets climbed to record levels at news of an economy in overdrive.

More Americans still disapprove of the job Obama is doing as President. But at 48%, Obama’s approval rating is at its highest point in CNN polling since May 2013.

The gains were driven by newfound backing among women, independents and millennials — groups where Obama’s approval numbers jumped 10 percentage points from a month ago…

Tuesday’s CNN/ORC poll showed for the first time in seven years, a majority of Americans — 51% — have a positive view of the economy, a sharp increase from the 38% who felt that way in October.

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Some Democrats have blamed Mr. Obama for not taking enough credit for the state of the economy. But as The New York Times correspondent Jackie Calmes reported recently, the party remains divided over how it should handle the issue, with some officials fearing a backlash if the president or his allies celebrate an economy that is still leaving millions of Americans behind…

If the economy continues to improve, these changes will eventually be reflected in Mr. Obama’s approval ratings. An interesting point of comparison is Bill Clinton in early 1996. Mr. Clinton was still striking the same awkward balance as Mr. Obama, taking credit for recent growth while noting “there is another side to America’s economy: About half our people still haven’t gotten a raise in terms of real purchasing power of their incomes in 10 or 15 years.” It wasn’t clear to political observers as late as April 1996 how much credit Mr. Clinton would get from the public on the economy, given the insecurity that many voters still felt. But Mr. Clinton was eventually successful in attributing the strong economic recovery to his policies, which pushed his approval ratings to nearly 60 percent and helped him to easily defeat Bob Dole.

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Obama’s turnaround in recent weeks – he’s seized the offensive with a series of controversial executive actions and challenges to leaders in his own party on the budget — can be attributed to a fundamental change in his political mindset, according to current and former aides. He’s gone from thinking of himself as a sitting (lame) duck, they tell me, to a president diving headlong into what amounts to a final campaign – this one to preserve his legacy, add policy points to the scoreboard, and – last but definitely not least – to inflict the same kind of punishment on his newly empowered Republican enemies, who delighted in tormenting him when he was on top…

“He needs to run, to compete – or more to the point, he needs someone to run against,” a former top Obama adviser told me.

He’s got that now, in a Republican-controlled Capitol Hill. Obama, a political counterpuncher who often needs a slap in the face to wake up, got a gut-shot in November. The Democrats’ staggering loss in the midterms – like his disastrous performance in the first presidential debate against Mitt Romney in 2012 – seems to have jolted him to the realization that he’ll have to act boldly to preserve what he’d assumed was a settled legacy…

While it might seem crazy to compare a wiser and wizened president entering his seventh year in office to the callow, Next Big Thing of his U.S. Senate days, Obama is now inhabiting the psychological head-space of his early career on the national political scene. Now as then, he can legitimately describe himself as an underdog. He feels at liberty to address any topic he chooses on his own terms — race, for instance — and, most importantly, he’s increasingly untethered from what he views as a petty, geriatric Democratic establishment he originally crusaded against as a presidential candidate in 2007.

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The President Obama on display the past few weeks has been the one many of his supporters have been expecting since he took office. In a flurry of decisions—executive action providing legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants, a climate deal with China, the move toward normalization with Cuba—he’s been decisive, bold, and seemingly oblivious to near-term political costs. Rather than fruitlessly trying to untangle Gordian knots on Capitol Hill, he’s moved to slice through them with unilateral executive action. Obama swaggered so much during his year-end press conference last week that he looked as though he might lift the microphone from the podium and drop it on the stage, pop-star style, as he walked out…

One senior Obama adviser says the administration “To Do list” after 2012 included thinking “about how you lock in the Obama coalition for Democrats going forward. Because it’s not a 100 percent certainty that they come out for the next Democrat.” Part of the answer, the adviser said, was to pursue aggressive unilateral action on “a set of issues where we have an advantage … and believe are substantively the right thing to do” and dare Republicans to oppose him.

Most Republicans are happy to take that bait, confident that what they see as Obama’s overreach will energize conservatives and alienate independents in 2016. The White House is betting instead that Obama is helping the next Democratic nominee reassemble his winning coalition. By energizing the party base, Obama’s fusillade could also free Clinton to stress an economic message that courts white-working class voters—if his flurry of left-leaning unilateral actions doesn’t irrevocably alienate them first. Either way, with his defiant late-term resurgence, the president is not just making an abstract play for history, he is also concretely shaping the contest to succeed him.

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[T]hings in the U.S. do look rather awesome. Mitt Romney promised to bring unemployment down to 6 percent in his first term; it’s already down to 5.8 percent, half the struggling eurozone’s rate. Newt Gingrich promised $2.50 gas; it’s down to $2.38. Crime, abortion, teen pregnancy and oil imports are also way down, while renewable power is way up and the American auto industry is booming again. You don’t have to give credit to President Barack Obama for “America’s resurgence,” as he has started calling it, but there’s overwhelming evidence the resurgence is real. The Chicken Littles who predicted a double-dip recession, runaway interest rates, Zimbabwe-style inflation, a Greece-style debt crisis, skyrocketing energy prices, health insurance “death spirals” and other horrors have been reliably wrong…

Let’s face it: The press has a problem reporting good news. Two Americans died of Ebola and cable TV flipped out; now we’re Ebola-free and no one seems to care. The same thing happened with the flood of migrant children across the Mexican border, which was a horrific crisis until it suddenly wasn’t. Nobody’s going to win a Pulitzer Prize for recognizing that we’re smoking less, driving less, wasting less electricity and committing less crime. Police are killing fewer civilians, and fewer police are getting killed, but understandably, after the tragedies in Ferguson and Brooklyn, nobody’s thinking about that these days. The media keep us in a perpetual state of panic about spectacular threats to our safety — Ebola, sharks, terrorism — but we’re much likelier to die in a car accident. Although, it ought to be said, much less likely than we used to be; highway fatalities are down 25 percent in a decade.

The other problem in acknowledging good news, not just for the press but for the public, is that it has come to feel partisan, like an endorsement of whoever occupies the White House. Republican leaders have exacerbated this problem by describing everything Obama has done — his 2009 stimulus package, his 2010 Wall Street reforms, his 2013 tax hikes on high earners, his various anti-pollution regulations aimed at coal-fired power plants, and most of all Obamacare — as “job-killing” catastrophes that would obliterate the economy. It’s hard to point out that the economy is humming along nicely without making those doom-and-gloom predictions sound ill-advised and over-the-top. Because they were.

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[T]he context in which journalists judge Obama is about to change. This year’s dominant storyline was about Obama and the midterm elections. Most key Senate races took place in red and purple states where Democratic candidates distanced themselves from Obama, thus magnifying the media’s perception that he was a political pariah.

Next year, however, the story won’t be 2014 but 2016. And the Democratic story, in all likelihood, will be Hillary Clinton’s march toward her party’s nomination. While Obama was certainly unpopular this fall in states like Kentucky, he remains quite popular among the liberal activists who play an outsized role in Democratic primaries. In fact, Obama retains a connection to many them that Hillary Clinton has never enjoyed. The closer she comes to the nomination, the more nostalgic some of those grassroots liberals will become about Obama. And this new context—Obama versus Hillary among Democratic activists—rather than Obama versus Alison Lundergan Grimes among Kentucky midterm voters—will cast him in a more favorable light. Just last week, in a slap at Clinton, 300 former Obama campaign staffers signed a letter urging Elizabeth Warren to run. In the year to come, there will be many more reminders that in 2008 Obama generated a passion among liberals that Hillary Clinton did not, and may still not. That storyline will make Obama look good.

Every presidency has its media cycles. Journalists like to build up, tear down and then build up again. This year, Obama’s media coverage has been horrendous. According to The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, Obama had the worst year of any major figure in Washington. But it’s precisely because so many journalists share Cillizza’s views that our easily bored tribe will now try to push the pendulum back. Which won’t be very hard at all.

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It is possible that Obama is emulating one of his early role models, Harold Washington, who dealt with opposition from white  Democrats in the Chicago city council by using his executive powers to reform the city. When his allies secured a majority, he was finally able to govern — and promptly died early in his second term. Obama wrote that Washington’s mistake was to enact only incremental reforms, rather than more radical changes — and he has since applied those conclusions in the White House.

Yet given the failure of many of Obama’s most ambitious policies–and given that conservative opposition is not (as Democrats pretend) based on racism, but on principle — Obama’s approach has done little but divide the country. He is now a far distance from the unifying persona of 2004.

And one senses that he does not care — that the point of governing by executive order is to irritate Republicans, or to flatter his ego.

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The irony, however, is that Obama really isn’t taking huge political risks. Everything that he’s done in the past six weeks — from immigration and the environment to opening relations with Cuba — is not only popular, but stands to help his party — in 2016 and in the years beyond. For example, Democrats already had a stranglehold on the nation’s Hispanic vote — Obama’s immigration order will only strengthen it.

There’s another understated political benefit: It’s making Republicans crazy. The one thing that truly unites the GOP these days is an emotional and irrational dislike of the president. So every time Obama does something the Republicans don’t like, it not only makes them mad but gets them talking about impeachment and other loopy political ideas. In other words, it encourages Republicans to act even more extreme than they have for the past six years. That might not necessarily be great for the country, but in heightening the contrast between the two parties, it’s a pretty good deal for Democrats.

To be sure, Obama’s boldness is a fairly constricted one. He is pushing the envelope within the well-established boundaries of American politics — and certainly not as far as some of his liberal critics would prefer. Still, by sharpening the broad differences between Democrats and Republicans, he is providing Americans with a much clearer sense of the stark choices they face from the two parties. The candidate who ran as a post-partisan uniter in 2008 has pretty much given up the dream of bipartisanship. To quote Phyllis Schlafly, Americans will be given “a choice, not an echo.’’ So while Obama might be a lame duck, his willingness to act unilaterally and take steps that bolster his party’s political base — and inflame Republicans — are helping ensure that he remains the most relevant figure in American politics. In short, welcome to the honey badger presidency.

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[S]omething strange has happened in our last two presidencies. The lame-duck phenomenon has changed. In our new political marketplace, the decline of powerful party organizations and the rise of hyperpartisan politics mean that presidents have much less political capital even at the height of their terms. At the same time, they have unprecedented capacity for unilateral executive authority. The great constraints on using that authority are re-election and the midterm congressional elections. But once those are over, the new end-of-term president is not a lame duck anymore. He is a new and more muscular animal altogether…

[H]e should think about doing and saying those needful things that only a president who is not again seeking office can say and do. He might find a way to, finally, close the Guantánamo Bay prison complex. Or just before the 2017 inauguration, he could commute the sentences of the 50,000 nonviolent drug offenders who have been sentenced to more than 10 years in federal prison. That would be memorable.

Could a Republican successor reverse these actions? Not easily. Executive action often creates new contractual obligations (as Mr. Bush’s bailouts did) and new rights (as Mr. Obama’s immigration action has) that are hard to roll back. Finally, he should heed the example of Eisenhower, whose 1961 farewell address warned of the military-industrial complex, and not forget the importance of last words. So far, his most memorable line is the slogan that helped him in 2008. Can Mr. Obama became our best lame duck? To paraphrase him: Yes, he can.

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Obama is said to feel liberated in his revolutionary mode, without worry of either midterm elections or his own reelection. He promises in his “fourth quarter” to enact more executive orders that will radically transform America, despite potential opposition from voters and the Congress…

In part the Obama revolution is a war to divvy up the nation by race, class, and gender. Differences are all stoked through various made-up wars. Incendiary presidential advisers like Al Sharpton, inflammatory rhetoric such “nation of cowards” and “punish our enemies,” and presidential commentary on controversies such as the Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown cases inflame and divide…

Yet the president presses on with his unpopular agenda, believing, as did Napoleon, that he alone is the revolution — intent to ignore popular opinion, the rule of law, and Congress. He assumes that his mastery of the teleprompter and iconic status as the first black president exempt him from congressional censure or outright public revolt.

In the next two years, we will see presidential overreach that we have not witnessed in modern memory.

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Anyone watching the President’s press conference last week could feel just how energized he was. And it wasn’t just because he was going on vacation — Obama can no doubt feel the pull of wanting to leave a positive legacy.

Right now, he likely believes the corner has been turned on the economy, and he may even feel things are breaking his way on foreign policy, too. After all, ISIS’ momentum has at least been temporarily stalled, while the decline in oil prices has taken Russian President Vladimir Putin down a notch or two. Plus, if Israeli elections due in March produce a more centrist government, John Kerry may start pushing Obama to get more engaged in the long-stalled peace process.

Yet challenges remain — the possibility of a terror attack always looms at home, while North Korea, Syria and Iraq are proving to be ongoing thorns in the U.S. side. And presidential luck can evaporate just as easily as it has appeared.

Still, as tough as 2014 was, and although 2015 brings with it a Republican-controlled Congress bound to take some wind out of his sails, one thing is abundantly clear — driven by legacy and momentum, this lame duck president plans to be doing a lot of quacking next year.

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