“Today I had a chance to speak with John Boehner and congratulated Mitch McConnell on becoming the next Senate majority leader,” said Barack Obama in the opening of his White House press conference following the Democrats’ Tuesday massacre. “And I told them both that I look forward to finishing up this Congress’s business and then working together for the next two years to advance America’s business.” The president is looking forward to “working together to deliver for the American people.”
Obama struck an optimistic, cooperative tone. Of course, he better. If he wants to have any relevance going forward, what choice does he have but to play nice with Republicans, or at least talk nice?
This begs the trillion-dollar question: Is Obama still relevant? Given the truly historic proportion of this Republican victory, is Barack Obama about to become the lamest of lame-ducks?
Before Republicans get too excited, I would caution that a president is never irrelevant, simply due to the sheer power of the office. We don’t call it the Bully Pulpit for nothing. There are plenty of muscles for the commander-in-chief to flex, even if the opposing party runs the fitness center.
I would point conservatives to a notable example from their presidential icon, Ronald Reagan. Six years into his presidency, in 1986, Ronald Reagan’s party likewise lost the Senate, and again lost the House. And yet, Reagan’s final two years were rich with success. He and Mikhail Gorbachev held four summits, in Geneva, Washington, Moscow, and New York. They signed history’s greatest nuclear-missile treaty: the INF Treaty. Domestically, Reagan reaped the benefits of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, a further boon to economic prosperity.
Alas, there was one key negative in Reagan’s final two years: the Iran-Contra hearings. With the help of the liberal media, Democrats in Congress tried to turn Iran-Contra into the second coming of Watergate. The sharks were in the water. They wanted Reagan’s scalp.
Could Republicans seek the same against Obama? I doubt it. Any attempt to do so, no matter the validity, would be met with the loudest wails of “racism” and everything and anything else from the progressive corner.
Republicans will not want to jeopardize their chances for the White House in 2016. Impeaching Obama would be politically counter-productive.
But while Barack Obama might not be the subject of Capitol Hill hearings, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton, likely will be. This seems inevitable, given that Benghazi demands continued investigation.
But back to the Reagan analogy: Ronald Reagan generally enjoyed an excellent final two years from a policy standpoint, especially in foreign policy. Could Obama do the same? No, I don’t think so. Consider:
In foreign policy, Obama is plainly not a leader. I don’t think he wants to be. His view of America in the world is a diminished America. He has willingly and happily diminished his own leadership role. There will be no Obama-Putin moments similar to Reagan-Gorbachev ones—quite the contrary.
Domestically, his signature policy achievement, Obama-care, will be slowed if not stopped. It has now lost all momentum and assistance from the legislature. Obama is no longer on offense. That’s especially true given his pronounced inability to reach across the aisle over the past six years, an opposition he once called “hostage-takers.”
“I continue to believe we are simply more than just a collection of red and blue states,” Obama told the press on Tuesday, seeking a more conciliatory tone. “We are the United States.”
The rhetoric is nice, but given Obama’s ideology and perhaps psychology, I don’t foresee him suddenly becoming the great unifier, initiating a cascade of bipartisan triumphs. I can’t even imagine what those would be.
So, for Obama to implement much of anything from his agenda, what will it take? His main source of impact will not come in bipartisan achievements but in unilateral overtures. We may see him attempt to further rely on executive orders, which would be unfortunate and even more divisive.
He will also hammer out a long-term liberal legacy with the courts, where he can help shape law and culture. Given the opportunity, he will seize the chance to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with another leftist in the mold (and youth) of Elena Kagan. The long-term impact on issues like religious freedom could be dismal. If Obama has made any particularly discernible “change,” it is in the courts.
So, is President Barack Obama still relevant? Yes, but much less so. His own radicalism in attempting to fundamentally transform America has prompted Americans to fundamentally transform his plans.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include, "The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor" (Mercury Ink (July 17, 2012). He is a biographer of Ronald Reagan whose books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism."