On Jan. 20, 2017, Barack Obama will leave the White House. He has one year left before the historians take it upon themselves to dissect his record and give him a place in the history books.
The last year in office of an American president is often difficult and frustrating. All eyes are on the presidential election, the country pays less attention to the commander in chief, advisers are thinking about life after the White House, and senators and representatives in Congress forget about the art of compromise.
“Traditionally, the opposition party is completely focused on the upcoming election and is less likely than usual to make even the smallest concession,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of political science at Princeton University.*
But American political history shows that these last 12 months are not always fruitless.
“I’ve never been more optimistic about a year ahead,” announced Obama before flying off on vacation to Hawaii.
By looking for limited agreements with Capitol Hill, acting by decree or sending strong symbolic signals, these are the seven ways in which the 44th president of the United States can hope to make a change before leaving office.
Obama has been hitting a brick wall with this emblematic issue since 2009. He still hopes to close this controversial prison “which terrorists use for recruitment.”
In early 2016, Obama must present to Congress a detailed proposal to transfer the remaining detainees to American soil. Aware that the chances of a favorable vote are slim, he is also brandishing the possibility of acting by decree. But his legal margin for maneuvering is uncertain and has divided opinion among experts.
Complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Experiencing a painful birth after five years of negotiations, this vast free trade agreement with 11 Pacific nations was one of Obama’s great victories in 2015. But the last obstacle remains to be overcome: Congress.
So far, the president has put pressure on his Republican rivals – traditionally more in favor of free trade – to make progress. But the recent contradictory statements of its leaders and the political calculations in the run-up to the elections may complicate the issue. The party is far from being won over.
Leave a Mark on Immigration
As with health care reform or gay marriage, Obama hopes that the nine justices of the Supreme Court will give him a helping hand in advancing one of his main aims: reforming the immigration system.
Faced with paralysis in Congress, he has decided to act by decree without waiting for a vote on a proposed law to offer 5 million unauthorized immigrants the chance to legalize their situation. Legal proceedings have begun. It is now up to the Supreme Court to decide.
Rein In Firearms
“We have this strange habit of uninterrupted media coverage for two or three days, then suddenly we move on to something else. [In 2016] I will do everything I can so that this issue is the subject of sustained attention,” Obama stated recently.*
His teams are working on statutes which should be announced early in the new year. Convinced that the majority of Americans are in favor of “common sense” measures, Obama also wants the subject to be an election issue.
Score Points in Syria
Anxious to counter general opinion – widespread in the U.S. and elsewhere – that he has not done enough on this issue, Obama is hoping to make both military and diplomatic progress.
In a landmark event, the 15 members of the Security Council, including Russia, have adopted a road map to a political solution. But the hardest work remains to be done.
In an article entitled “Obama and Kerry’s Wishful Thinking on Syria,” Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council believes that the American approach is doomed to failure if it does not evolve, and condemns the limits of a strategy that comes down to a “wishful approach” whereby the Assad regime, Russia and Iran “see the truth, acknowledge error and sin no more.”
Go to Cuba
A symbol-laden trip to Cuba would mark the peak of a rapprochement with Havana, announced a year ago to general surprise and great approval in Cuba, the U.S. and around the world.
Obama has clearly stated that he would like to visit the island, but such a trip would be conditional on advances in individual freedoms and human rights.
Help a Democrat Get Elected
Obama knows more than anyone that if a Republican succeeds him in the White House, that successor will try to unravel all or part of his legacy, from health care reform, to the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, to the battle against climate change.
Having remained deliberately silent so far – except for unequivocal condemnation of Donald Trump – Obama should change his tune next year.
“I think I’ll have a Democratic successor. I’ll campaign very hard to make that happen,” he promised.
*Editor's Note: Although accurately translated, this quote could not be independently verified.