In 2016, Barack Obama becomes a “lame duck” and a campaigner. He can implement reforms at Guantanamo and in the matter of gun control – and he could embark on a historic journey.
As Barack Obama and his family fly to Hawaii for their Christmas vacation, he's satisfied. Shortly before his vacation, the world passed an ambitious climate agreement and he remarked, “I imagine taking my grandkids, if I'm lucky enough to have some, to the park someday and holding their hands, and hearing their laughter, and watching a quiet sunset, all the while knowing that our work today prevented an alternate future that could've been grim. That our work here, and now, gave future generations cleaner air, and cleaner water, and a more sustainable planet. And what could be more important than that?”
The climate agreement is a great success for Obama, no thanks to the Republicans and the U.S. Congress necessary. He canceled the Keystone pipeline and set stricter CO2 emission standards both by executive order. He likes the leadership role in the fight, side by side with the rest of the world, for cleaner air and could conceivably set additional standards for the oil and automobile industries.
In his press conference, Obama described himself as more optimistic than ever. But a U.S. president is driven by developments he can't always control. And in the fight against the Islamic State it's not just Republicans who say he has shown too little leadership. That's another story in the seventh year of his tenure.
The speech with which he wants to reassure the American people illustrates his dilemma. While Obama's presence in the Oval Office is highly symbolic, he offers nothing new. He only says what he is not willing to do and that he wants to keep America out of another Middle East war. So the Republicans complain about “the weakling in the White House” while the Democrats do their duty to defend him. Europeans often overlook the fact that Obama may be a brilliant orator, but in a very polarized America the only people who believe what he says are those who already agree with him.
So no one should expect too much from the final State of the Union address he will give on Jan. 12, 2016. Traditionally, little new legislation is initiated in an election year in order to give the new president enough maneuvering room – and because the incumbent loses power with each passing day. But even as a lame duck Obama can still leave his imprint, and the 54-year old may find the following five subjects important.
Five Themes that Are Likely To Be Important to the President
1. His successor must be a Democrat. As the first African-American president, Obama will always have a special place among U.S. presidents. In order to guarantee that his accomplishments – Obamacare, the moratorium on deportation of illegal immigrants, a higher minimum wage for civil servants – are lasting, he cannot be succeeded by a Republican who could ignore the Paris climate agreement or overturn the nuclear agreement with Iran. Whether for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, Obama will work flat out to ensure a good turnout of black and Latino voters. The higher those numbers, the easier it will be for the Democrats to take back the Senate. And more in demand: First Lady Michelle Obama is even more popular than her husband.
2. Clear talk about racism, prisons and police brutality. At the end of 2014, after Ferguson, many African-Americans were disappointed with Obama, saying Obama had done more for gays than for blacks. That has changed now since Obama became the first president to visit a federal prison and speak with the inmates. He has pardoned drug dealers and wants to reduce minimum sentences. The closer Obama gets to his last day in the White House, the more clearly he expresses himself. Whether he sings again in 2016 as he did in Charleston remains to be seen.
3. Stronger gun control laws – somehow. Obama himself has complained about the “routine” of having to regularly console families of shooting victims. It frustrates him that the laws can't be toughened but he may try again in 2016: He could invite gun manufacturers to meet with the White House and urge them to ensure more safety measures such as a fingerprint scan. The tactic: Refusing a White House invitation and not participating is something not even the weapons industry can afford to risk. Alternatively, he could issue an executive order that gun manufacturers, where sales exceed a certain level, would be required to do a personal background check on the purchaser. The White House could make such a controversial measure a public safety issue and justify it by citing the fact that a majority of citizens favor more gun control.
4. Could Guantanamo be closed by executive order? It seems to be a completely open question whether Obama will keep his reelection promise to close the “shameful” Cuban detention camp. Not only does the New York Times argue Obama could close it by decree, the camp only serves the Islamic State group with fodder for its propaganda machine; it also damages America's image abroad. And in the 14 years of its existence, it has cost the United States $5 billion to operate. The approximately 100 remaining prisoners would have to be transferred to facilities on the U.S. mainland, a move vehemently opposed by congressional Republicans. (By law, Congress must be given 30 days notice of any changes.) Should Obama do it anyway, he would use his power as president to create his own facts in support of his decision. The decision will be difficult for Obama, the attorney: On the one hand, he has the opportunity to end something “un-American” but he would also be creating a precedent that could be exploited by a future Republican president if Congress is controlled by Democrats.
5. A historic journey to Havana. In 2014, Obama announced that the U.S. would resume diplomatic relations with Cuba. Since then, official embassies have been opened by both nations and Obama hopes to travel to Havana while he is still president. In an ABC interview, he said he had set only one precondition to President Castro: “If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody ... we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.” The last such visit was Calvin Coolidge's 1928 visit to Cuba. A visit by President Obama would be an apt backdrop for the remarkable political about-face and recall what Obama said at his inauguration: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
U.S. presidents nearing the end of their second term like to concentrate on policy – Bill Clinton's top priority was furthering the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That's one area where Obama will hardly get personally involved because he and Prime Minister Netanyahu have a profound dislike for one another.
His presidential image will also influence whether or not the U.S. Congress accepts the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement for which Obama constantly presses. Other than that, relations with emerging superpower China, rivalry with Russia's President Putin and the situation in eastern Ukraine as well as the war against the Islamic State group jihadis will occupy the bulk of President Obama's time.
And since long term solutions to these issues are not evident on the horizon, Obama's successor will be dealing with the same exact problems after Jan. 20, 2017.