The President’s Legacy

President Obama’s announcement yesterday of a dramatic break in stultified United States-Cuban relations provides further proof of the chief executive’s willingness to take bold actions in his final two years in office.

He declared: “Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future –- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.”

Those who might have anticipated that a wounded President would     quietly retreat into a corner to nurse his wounds after a disastrous election have once more been proven wrong. A cautious leader who had been hamstrung by vigorous Republican opposition and a fear of hurting the political prospects of Democratic candidates has been freed from his constraints.

The stunning change in U.S. policy toward Cuba – which aroused instant howls of protest from politicians like Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), former Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) – could have been announced by any number of Presidents over the past decades, but none did until President Obama.

Before the election, James Mann, scholar in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, presciently wrote in a New York Times OpEd :

“The notion that the Obama presidency is all but over has arrived right on schedule for any second-term president . . . However, history also demonstrates a larger truth that the commentators ignore today. Quite a few of the most significant achievements of the Reagan, Clinton and Bush presidencies took place in their final two years. The public may pay ever less attention in the final years, and the president’s perceived power may be on the wane. Yet he still possesses the same great constitutional authority.”

The broadcast yesterday marked at least the fourth such dramatic change in policy since the election:

1.  On November 10, the President endorsed net neutrality rules, asking the Federal Communications Commission to adopt the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality, the principle that says Internet service providers should treat all internet traffic equally.

2.  Two days later, the President and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an historic climate change deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions over the past two years.  In a little noticed comment immediately after the deal was announced, a senior White House adviser suggested: “We’re not just amblin’ off here [into the sunset];” the White House can still check major policy initiatives off his to-do list.

3.  On November 20, the  President proclaimed sweeping changes to the immigration system via executive action that extends protection from deportation to about 4.3 million more unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. He argued that he was forced to act by the House Republicans unwillingness to pass legislation to deal with the situation.

4.  The Cuban announcement yesterday.

In all four instances, the President has acted boldly. In all four instances, Republicans are issuing their usual howls of rage. Certainly, the Republican-dominated 114th Congress will try to block these changes.

For those that applauded Mr. Obama’s sweeping statements and actions on nuclear weapons in his first two years in office, these recent actions provide hope.

Those who had faint hopes for progress in his last two years in office can now entertain the possibility that the President might put nuclear weapons back in the lineup for policy transformation. He could reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy, shrink the excessive number of nuclear weapons and take weapons off high alert ready to be fired on a moment’s notice.

The President has whetted our appetites.