The Liberation of the Lame Duck: Obama Goes Full Bulworth

As the last week has shown us, this is a president who’s not afraid of taking bold steps in “the fourth quarter” of his tenure.

Larry Downing/Reuters

This is one liberated lame duck.

At his year-end, pre-Hawaii press conference, we caught a rare glimpse of peak Obama. He was cool, optimistic, and culturally attuned (at least by presidential standards)—dropping references to Seth Rogen while slamming Sony’s cowardly decision to pull The Interview and dismissing outsize fears of the “insecure” North Korean regime.

After a brutal first 10 months of 2014, capped by another midterm election shellacking, expectations of a deflated lame duck have been dashed. Instead, we’ve seen a defiant president playing political offense in what he called “the fourth quarter” of his presidency. The sometimes-exhausted center has come off the bench.

President Obama has been known to fantasize with staffers about going full Bulworth—a reference to the subversive 1998 Warren Beatty comedy—kicking away the formal restraints of the Oval Office to finally do and say what he really means.

But this president is a self-monitoring man, and his version of getting really crazy has more to do with pushing progressive policy than coked-up rapping about socialism like the eponymous Senator Jay Bulworth.

Just look at this week’s bold decision to break with 50 years of presidential precedent in Cuba and you see a commander in chief unwilling to simply mark time in office. Moreover, the Cuban breakthrough comes at a time when the political costs of action are less toxic to future Democratic presidential candidates.

President Obama narrowly won the Cuban-American vote in South Florida in 2012. Demographic changes are making that community less dogmatic, even through the Castro regime remains an oppressive dictatorship. People trump politics and increased engagement is likely to prove more effective than continuing a policy that’s failed to show positive results for 50 years.

Free from the constraints of having to undergo another election, President Obama is taking executive actions on everything from immigration to climate change. In the process, he’s drawn fire from Republicans who are indignant that the president is not taking their wishes into account. This is not just about his legacy; it’s about him feeling liberated enough to act boldly and take steps with long-term implications rather than just leaving thorny issues to the next president.

But despite the president’s press-conference assurances that “I take Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell at their word that they want to get things done,” the cost of this liberation is that it dramatically increases the degree of difficulty of finding common ground with the new Congress.

Still, you can’t really blame the guy. The president is making a rational judgment based on his previous six years in office that Republican olive branches and promises to end gridlock represent little more that the latest Beltway game of Lucy and the Football. After all, almost every time he’s reached out to Republicans on policy in the past—from liberal-alienating proposals [] to reforming entitlement programs in the context of a grand bargain to the adoption of what had previously been a Republican plan to reform health care—he’s been attacked as being a Marxist or a monarch or worse.

His frustration is rooted in the fact that President Obama sees himself as essentially an Eisenhower Republican in terms of policy. This notion no doubt makes Republicans gag and gasp, but it’s a self-image bolstered by historic analysis by the respected political scientists at VoteView that show him to be the most moderate Democrat since WWII. However, in a time where narrative outweighs facts amid overheated partisan passions, even stats are suspect and fail to carry much weight.

Instead of reacting to Republican proposals, President Obama is forcing Republicans to react to him. And while this might poison the well even further, a more tepid response would have likely resulted in stalemate and lost opportunities. One of the gambles this onetime poker player is making is that Republicans’ rational self-interest might propel them to the bargaining table on core issues ranging from trade deals to tax reform.

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One of the most persistent myths in American politics is the media-fueled concept of the lame duck. While departing powers have less political capital than incoming presidents, the reality is that President Obama is still leader of the free world for the next two years. And while the media attention flows toward 2016–in part fueled by the fantasy that the next man or woman will magically come in and change everything—the noisy cavalcade of contenders will be competing for the mere chance to have the power that Obama does for the next two years. Much can be accomplished even without the cooperation of a conservative Congress.

Would more kumbaya moments between parties be better for the country? You bet. But are they likely to occur given the current polarization of our parties and the persistent attempt to delegitimize this president? Not so much.

The prospect of a happy warrior in the White House might just reinvigorate the stale state of policy debates in Washington. And while it’s true that President Obama risks alienating reasonable Republicans and therefore doom any chance of further legislative achievements in his administration, it’s equally true that the best defense in politics in playing offense.

President Obama has already succeeded in framing the policy debate in D.C. while forcing prospective 2016 candidates to react to his actions. At the very least, its refreshing to see the president get off the mat with a smile on his face and put to rest the persistent myth that the leader of the free world is a helpless giant in the last quarter of his term.