The Agility of the Lame Duck

The thaw between Washington and Havana marks one of the most fruitful months for Democrat Barack Obama since he arrived at the White House in 2009. Contrary to many predictions, the defeat of the Democratic Party in the legislative elections on Nov. 4 did not turn him into a “lame duck,” a term that in Washington jargon indicates a president who in his final term loses his influence and ability to maneuver. On immigration policy, climate change, and now with Cuba, the president’s decisions reveal that his audacity remains intact. The legacy is not written.

The busiest month for Obama began with a trip to Asia — still under the shock of the Democrat’s humiliation at the polls and loss in the Senate — and the agreement to reduce pollutant gas emissions. It remains to be seen how the accord will be applied, but the alliance between the two main gas-emitting countries was the first hopeful sign in years in environmental policy.

Upon returning from Asia, Obama announced a temporary legalization of up to 5 million undocumented immigrants, who will avoid deportation and have access to work permits. In a nation of more than 10 million undocumented immigrants, and with confusing and inefficient immigration laws, Obama’s measures represent the first serious intention in years to tackle the problem.

And now Cuba — the prisoner exchange begins the thaw with Havana and permits putting an end to one of the anomalies of U.S. foreign policy. The re-establishment of diplomatic relations, suspended 53 years ago, is one of those decisions that defines the place of a president in the history books, like the Camp David agreement or the reconciliation with China by Richard Nixon.

The three decisions — climate change, immigration reform and the Cuban thaw — all have something in common: They are unilateral actions, decisions of the president, without having to count on Congress. Obama has known how to use the slim margin left by a hostile Congress in order to make policy and demonstrate, as another Democrat named Lyndon B. Johnson demanded on the eve of the adoption of civil rights laws, that the presidency is good for something.

Perhaps, as The Washington Post stated days ago, Obama has had “the worst year in Washington,” but not a bad month. The turmoil in Vladimir Putin’s Russia can be used to defend the effectiveness of the sanctions that were a response to the Russian incursions in Ukraine. And the negotiations with Iran, driven by the same principle as those of Cuba — it is necessary to talk to the enemy — remain open. Paraphrasing the saying attributed to Mark Twain, the news about the — political — death of Obama was exaggerated.

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