Obama Gives His All before Term Ends

In November 2014, President Obama stood his ground, using the power of his signature to prevent millions of illegal immigrants from being deported and acknowledging their right of abode. Reactions from within and outside of the United States toward this move have overall been positive. The House of Representatives overturned Obama’s plan on Jan. 14, 2015 with a 236 to 191 vote, as well as abolishing protection of child immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. The House has refused to allocate funds for Obama’s executive order, and the Senate is strongly against it, too. However, it will be difficult for Congress to change Obama’s decision, so there is a large chance of a fait accompli. Even though the U.S. Congress is already controlled by Republicans, Obama still has presidential veto power. This right to “act first and report later” could spread throughout Congress.

Especially in terms of diplomacy, after years of giving people an impression of indecisiveness, Obama has made a strategic decision. Between late 2014 and early 2015, U.S.-Cuba relations normalized. In 1962, President Kennedy signed Proclamation 3447, preventing Cuban products from entering the U.S. On Dec. 17, 2014, Obama issued a statement to ease sanctions on the Cuban economy. Afterward, Obama and Raul Castro, president of Cuba, separately announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the release of Cuban spies. The U.S. acknowledges that Obama’s alleviation of tension with Cuba began 18 months ago.

On Jan. 12, 2015, an American official confirmed that Cuba has already released all of the 53 prisoners that it promised to the U.S. In response to Cuba’s good intentions, Obama will probably announce his decision to ease U.S.-Cuban trade and travel restrictions after a few days or weeks. Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, was scheduled to have high-level talks with Cuba to negotiate issues such as investment and immigration in Havana from Jan. 21 to 22. Obama will discuss both America’s easing tension with Cuba and its restored relations with China and Vietnam.

Of course, improvements in U.S.-Cuban relations are off to a good start, but they must progress gradually, for they will not recover so quickly. Both countries still face substantial problems. The U.S. is still uncertain of when its embassy in Cuba will reopen. One difficult problem that the countries’ negotiation has not at all covered is the future of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Also, Cuba cannot completely change its social system and foreign policy because of its relationship with the U.S. The U.S. is aware that decades of mutual distrust will not disappear in one night, but can improve one step at a time, so it puts its hopes on continuing to open its Democracy PAC toward Cuba.

The public tends to believe that as Obama’s term reaches its end, he will overcome domestic and international restraints to achieve his goals with all his might, and that he will make breakthroughs in major diplomatic issues and leave behind a significant legacy. Similarly, former President Bill Clinton, also a Democrat, normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995 and established U.S.-Vietnam diplomacy in 1996. Between 1999 and 2000, before stepping down, Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even attempted to promote normalization with Iran and North Korea. Obama seems to follow Clinton’s thinking; before he steps down, he wants to improve relations not only with Cuba but also with Iran. By improving relations with Cuba, he has already surpassed Clinton.

After improving Cuban relations, Obama may still seek better relations with Iran. According to National Public Radio, on Dec. 29, 2014, Obama expressed that after Cuba, Iran could become the second country in his term to restore diplomatic relations with America. Obama urges Iran to grasp this opportunity, negotiate with the P5+1 (the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany) and repair its relations with the U.S. Obama believes that it is possible to reach an agreement, and this measure will ultimately relieve Iran of sanctions and put it back into the international community. This manner of speaking is in fact a good fit for Iran’s vision. Looking back, Obama did not just begin to work on Iranian relations; he has expressed this wish since his first term. Afterward, in March 2013, Obama utilized Iran’s celebration of Nowruz as an opportunity to call on Iran to respond to the international community’s request and stop its nuclear plans.

From a realistic perspective, the U.S. is well aware of Iran’s nuclear power. The U.S. knows that while Iran undergoes sanctions and surveillance, it has no way of producing nuclear weaponry within a short time. Besides, Iran reiterates that its low-enriched uranium program is peaceful and not at all meant for nuclear weaponry. Iran often treats the nuclear issue like a bargaining chip in its diplomatic battle with the U.S.; it has actually wanted to get along with the U.S. for the past 20 years. On the day the U.S. decides to loosen its grip, it is very possible that Iran will never again haggle over the nuclear issue and it will never again be a problem. One could say that the key to repairing U.S.-Iran relations and truly solving the nuclear crisis is in America’s – and Obama’s – hands. This decision may create major dissatisfaction in some opposing powers in America and the international community; however, if Obama is firm, they cannot stand in his way.

Of course, limited to the current political situation and other various factors, it is still difficult to judge whether Obama can take up Clinton’s courage to handle North Korea. In contrast to Cuba, on Jan. 2, the Obama administration criticized North Korea’s ruinous and forceful network attacks on Sony Pictures and may even add more sanctions to put extra pressure on North Korea. On Jan. 15, the Dong-A Ilbo reported that the U.S. government believes that expecting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons on its own is a fantasy, so everything possible must be done to expand sanctions against North Korea. However, The New York Times points out that the symbolic meaning of Obama’s sanctions on North Korea obscures its real meaning. Like U.S.-Iran relations, the key to changing U.S.-North Korea relations is the U.S. government, which North Korea also awaits. Perhaps Obama should put this at the bottom of his to-do list.

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