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Obama's New Path: Plowing Ahead Solo
From the Wall Street Journal of Thu, 18 Dec 2014 22:58:01 EST
Sara Murray and Jerry Seib discuss how President Obama has rebounded after the midterm elections, and Cybersecurity expert Howard Schmidt looks at corporate technology vulnerability after the Sony hacks.

WASHINGTON—The six weeks since his party suffered historic losses in the midterm elections offer a view of how President Barack Obama plans to govern in his final two years: plowing ahead with his agenda regardless of the political fallout.

Mr. Obama’s aggressive use of executive powers included striking a landmark climate-change deal with China, making broad changes to the U.S. immigration system and Wednesday’s news that his administration is re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of estrangement.

Those actions form a model for how Mr. Obama will govern, a senior administration official said, and result from his calculation that he cannot break Washington’s partisan gridlock. Instead, he is striking out on his own on controversial policies he sees as critical to his legacy.

This exercise of presidential power could quiet the post-election talk of Mr. Obama as a fading commander in chief struggling to remain relevant, while also fan GOP complaints of executive overreach.

Mr. Obama is girding for additional confrontations as he weighs approving the Keystone XL pipeline and how to proceed with his long-desired closure of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which administration officials have signaled he may do without congressional approval. He now also must contend with North Korea, a foreign-policy issue on which he has made little progress, given the U.S. assertions that Pyongyang was behind the hacking of sensitive information at Sony Pictures.

Each of the policies the president has tackled on his own has drawn opposition from lawmakers, but it isn’t clear that Congress has a successful path to undo his actions. Mr. Obama has, at the least, forced issues important to him onto the congressional agenda.

Lawmakers are considering Cuba policy that otherwise would have continued as status quo. His immigration action has put pressure on congressional Republicans to move on what had been a stalled issue. The president’s drive on climate change has at least spurred a discussion about an issue that had gained little traction with GOP lawmakers.

Still, Mr. Obama’s actions carry the potential of stymieing White House efforts to work with the new, GOP-controlled Congress on issues both sides have said are important, including tax policy, trade and immigration.

The move to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba is “not a signal that you want to work with us to get things done. You just want to do your own thing,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who will be the new majority leader. “This is just a whole new level of not caring about Congress.”

The White House is planning a major push early next year— starting with Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address—to achieve economic-policy changes aimed at boosting the middle class, the official said. It has begun laying the groundwork for gaining public support for them by highlighting recent economic gains.

“We have in terms of the economy come very far from where we started,” the official said. “And now are in a position to focus on the trends that have been hurting the middle class for a long time, including wage stagnation.”

Among proposals, Mr. Obama is likely to push for infrastructure spending that could create jobs, perhaps without legislation.

David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said complaints from Congress would be more persuasive if Republicans had shown a willingness to work with the president. Mr. Obama wants to leave office confident that he did everything he could to confront important challenges, he added, and the president doesn’t have time left to wait for Congress to change.

“It’s his own sense that the clock is ticking,” Mr. Axelrod said. “The conventional wisdom was that he was essentially done. He’s made an emphatic statement in the last few weeks that he is not.”

Signs of renewed economic optimism among Americans and of the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions on Russia could bring Mr. Obama additional goodwill and room to take risks. This week brought signals that sanctions were contributing to the decline of the Russian economy, as the ruble plummeted and Moscow’s central bank raised interest rates. And a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that only 17% of Americans expect the economy to worsen—the lowest level of economic pessimism in two years.

For his part, Mr. Obama has instructed his top aides to come up with ways to advance his agenda to the fullest extent his executive power would allow. He asked them to explore ways he can unilaterally shut the Guantanamo Bay facility if Congress doesn’t lift the ban on transferring some detainees to the U.S., which administration officials say is necessary to close it.

While all presidents have tried to make full use of their executive powers, Mr. Obama’s determination to act alone is unique and troubling, said Ari Fleischer , who served as press secretary under President George W. Bush .

Mr. Obama’s actions have signaled a lack of concern about damaging congressional relations, he said. And the next Congress could respond by taking actions the White House opposes, such as approving sanctions on Iran over the objections of the president.

“If the president disregards Congress, then Congress can disregard the president,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Write to Colleen McCain Nelson at and Carol E. Lee at

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